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Today's Family Magazine

Free water and boating safety programs for tweens and teens through Spirit of America

By Mary Flenner

Through the Spirit of America Foundation, some kids are learning to drive a boat before they are licensed to drive a car.  Their 23-year mantra is, “no child left at the dock,” and strives to increase children’s self-esteem and teamwork skills through learning water skills and how to operate various boats.   

The Spirit of America was established in Mentor in 1995 by Harry Allen, owner of Great Lakes Power Products.  Allen had a race boat called the “Spirit of America,” which achieved five world-class records.  Allen determined that he wanted to use the positive attention to give back to the community the way that he knew best, which was a combination of boating and educational opportunities for children. 

These water and boating programs offer a nontraditional classroom setting that provides hands-on, educational programming.  The best part is that this great program is available free of cost in Lake County for kids aged 11–17. 

“After proving ourselves with programming in 1995-1996, we continued growing the curriculum and moving out of our home in Lake County.  We are now in 18 locations across eight different states and are in the process of opening additional programs.  We have programs on the Pacific, Atlantic, Great Lakes and inland waterways,” says Cecilia Duer, CEO and president of the Spirit of America Foundation.

All of the Spirit of America programs across the country follow a similar format, although the timing varies based on their varying climates.  Students first taking a written course, either in a classroom or near the water, followed by drowning prevention classes usually in an indoor pool.  

After these water safety and educational programs are completed, students take to the water for a week to learn to sail, maneuver power boats, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and more.  Students learn to operate personal watercrafts and large vessels as well.  The entire program is a minimum of 40 hours. 

Duer also shares, “The changes that we see in our young people are actually quite overwhelming.  The increase in self-esteem, leadership, self-confidence and responsible behavior are the backbone of the program.  Our young people need a program like this, especially over the last year that we’ve had, through the loss of social opportunities.  The fact that we combine the program curriculum with the national education standard only serves to enhance young people’s ability to further their education in a nontraditional setting while becoming responsible young adults.”

Many graduates and family members are surprised at how much they can do in an environment that they may have never been introduced to. 

“Parents are constantly surprised by the knowledge that our young people are gaining and their ability to be responsible for their crew and equipment.  The opportunities that we have for them to become leaders are sometimes daunting at first, but throughout the program they gain the self confidence that they need to understand what important roles they play as leaders, team members and in our communities,” says Duer. 

In Lake and Lorain counties they average about 140 students every summer, and to date Spirit of America has taught 16,000 graduates. 

Colleen, a 2018 program graduate shared her experience:

“This program makes me feel so good.  I love to go on the water.  It’s so scary and so beautiful all at the same time.  You learn to trust –– trust yourself, trust your knowledge and trust the instructors.  I was so afraid, but I got out there and I got to feel the wind and the breeze and when I got to steer, I picked it up so fast.  I finished before I knew it and it was just amazing.  I feel like I could’ve done that all day.”

Many students return to volunteer and become instructors and coordinators after they turn 18.  “We are growing a new generation of safe, smart boaters and confident young adults,” says Duer. 

Spirit of America is still in the process of finalizing their summer 2021 schedule, but you can find more info on their website at and follow them on Facebook for updates.