EXTRA! Interview — Debra Frenkel, Executive Director and founder of Freedom Waters Foundation

By admin ~ August 9th, 2013. Filed under: Current Issue.


EXTRA! Interview

Debra Frenkel, Freedom Waters Foundation’s Executive Director and founder

Co-founders Debra Frenkel and John Weller

Freedom Waters Foundation founder
Debra Frenkel uses boating to help
people with special needs.

Executive Director and founder Debra Frenkel incorporated Freedom Waters Foundation (FWF) in March 2006 with the mission to “Enhance lives by providing boating opportunities and marine-related activities for people with disabilities, life-threatening illnesses, youth at risk, and others with special needs and veterans.” Together with co-founder John Weller, Frenkel established and implemented Weller Days: yacht outings for children with cancer and their families. John recruits yacht owners and the use of their vessels; Debra recruits the children and their families from local hospitals and cancer support group organizations.

By Laura Dunn


SB: How did Freedom Waters Foundation come to be?
DF: I was working for another organization when I started all these programs. They went out of business in October 2005 and John and I, just as friends, continued to take children with cancer and their families out on boats to offer a sense of freedom, leaving behind their worries and concerns of their day-to-day challenges. In January 2006, John called one morning and said, “Did you decide what you’re going to do yet? Start your own foundation. You need your own foundation.” 

With $1,000 in the bank and no clue on how to start a nonprofit, it felt right, and I said, “Okay, and you’re going to be the co-founder.” I incorporated Freedom Waters Foundation two months later, with the mission “Enhancing lives by providing boating opportunities and marine-related activities for people with disabilities, life-threatening illnesses, youth at risk, and others with special needs.” More specifically, we work with children and adults with cancer, kids with autism, deaf, visually impaired, physically disabled, hospice patients, therapeutic day camps, those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), veterans, and more. We help just about anyone who has a special need through boating and marine activities. All programs are free to the participants. John continues to recruit yacht/boat owners and the use of their vessels, while I recruit the people, with the help of our board members, volunteers, and our new program manager.

Our foundation’s tagline from the beginning has been “Making it happen!” And, this year, we have added, “Be safe. Be loving. And, share in the fun,” which sums up our priorities for everyone and our programs; it is the essence of each outing. I can truly tell you this is a meant-to-be organization, because even though it was never on my mind, it has been around for over 7 years, and miracles happen around and for it, often.

SB: What’s new with Freedom Waters for the 2013-2014 boating season?
DF: A lot! Currently, we’re on two Florida coasts, with offices in Naples and Fort Lauderdale but are making plans to expand out of Florida. We are figuring out whether to set up more chapters or give people how-to packets on starting and running their own Freedom Waters Foundation in their area.

To date, we’ve served 800-1400 people a year for seven years. The FWF Board of Directors is currently working on the strategic plan for the upcoming years.

We also started working with veterans and their families a year ago after one of our volunteers brought a Veteran to volunteer in one of the kids’ fishing outings. Later, he asked if FWF would consider working with veterans, and since they also have some unique needs, we added them to our mission. The FWF Veterans program has been EXTREMELY successful on both South Florida coasts. We have served over 400 veterans and their family members since June 2012.

SB: I bet you have quite a few great stories. Please tell me about some of them.
DF: Jan was 59 years old when I taught her to sail. It was the first time for her to be independent of her wheelchair, bed or caretaker. She sailed freely, independently with a huge smile across her face for two hours on her first solo sail. She had polio at the age of two and lived in an iron lung for three years, which caused paralysis throughout her body, leaving her only able to move a bit of her right arm and her neck and head. The rest of her body was dead weight. Sailing solo was made possible with the use of an electric joystick strapped to her leg which she could control similar to her electric wheelchair. Jan passed away a year later and the sailing experience was highlighted by her close friends as something that made her life extremely joyful through to the end.  

Vinnie is a 25-year-old veteran who served in Iraq, in 2007. He was severely injured from a building explosion. He remained in a coma for a year. He had to have a number of surgeries throughout his body to help him heal, including brain surgery, the reattachment of his arm, rebuilding of his elbow, and the installation of a medicinal pump to his spine to help him walk. He came to Freedom Waters Foundation with his parents and the gentleman who referred him who already knew our work. His father repeatedly expressed how unique and fragile Vinnie was. All the while Vinnie was smiling and appeared comfortable and excited about being out and about. Once the father was able to express his concerns, I asked if we could now talk about going out to the water and a fishing trip was arranged. Vinnie’s dad was concerned that it might be too rough out in the Gulf, so sailing was off limits since it would jolt Vinnie around too much. Although, a bit rough, the day out on the water was perfect. Dad fell quiet but said he was okay. Meanwhile, Vinnie was smiling throughout his day of fishing. He even caught some fish.

After some convincing, the dad finally agreed to let the family join me at the lake to see the sailing program. Vinnie’s dad again kept reiterating that Vinnie couldn’t go sailing, because he would be jolted around too much. However, once there, Dad finally allowed Vinnie to try to get into the boats. But before I could even finish asking Vinnie if he thought he could get in, he was already in and asking the volunteer to leave the dock! Dad’s response was, “Okay, just for a little while.” 

 It was a great day on the water with this family, a true Freedom Waters Foundation’s therapeutic on-the-water experience. Not just for Vinnie, but for the whole family. Freedom Waters Foundation is not just about the one person with challenges, but instead about all who participate—that individual, his/her family, the captain, crew, and FWF volunteers. FWF builds a greater sense of community with increased awareness, understanding, tolerance, and sharing in differences and similarities. 

SB: How can volunteers get involved?
DF: Volunteers can get involved by just contacting us at the office. We then will interview each person and find the place where he/she would best fit into the organization. FWF is heavily dependent on volunteers; we had 203 in 2012 and are currently at 150 so far for 2013. Although volunteers may come and go, depending on their availability, there are plenty of ways to participate: boat hosts, boat owners, captains, crew, office help, committee member, Board Member, and in many other creative ways. The entire organization is volunteer dependent, with only two employees.  I tell all our volunteers the most important thing is to come with an open, loving heart and to be able to transmit that to all we do here at FWF for our participants and with each other.

SB: Please tell me about some of the awards that FWF has received.
DF: Very proud to say that FWF has been honored in a number of ways: Foundation awarded John Weller and I with the Foundation Hero Award in 2011. In March 2012, FWF received Hodge’s University’s Dr. Harold Russell Excellence in Diversity Award, for our work with diverse populations. John Weller has been given the Bank of America Good Neighbor Award for his work with FWF. I was a recognized honoree at the American Association of University Women for FWF, as well. And, most recently, we were informed that FWF will be recognized at the METS (Marine Equipment Trade Show) in the Netherlands and will be receiving some award funds from them in November 2013. All of these recognitions were welcomed surprises.

SB: How often do you go boating?
DF: This year so far, FWF has provided 50 boat outings, serving just over 1,000 individuals. In May alone, there were 11 boat trips, however, the monthly average between both coasts is four outings. This might consist of many boats or just one, in all different types and size vessels. In 2012, FWF served 1,414 people and by the end of this year, hope to be closer to 1,500 participants served.    

SB: Anything else you want to add?
DF: In the past two weeks alone, we’ve had some exciting things happen. A woman in New York, whose father passed away, called to say she found FWF online. She and her mother chose to make it their charity of choice for donations in memory of her father, Fred Chall. He had been a boat dealer and loved the water. She described him as a very giving man and they felt that FWF was doing work that he would have been proud to participate in and support. Since his memorial, FWF has received a number of donations in his honor.

Freedom Waters Foundation
895 10th St. South, Suite 302-F
Naples, FL 34102
(239) 248-1120

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