Setting Sail for Change

Nigel Lee, 16, has never been outside his neighborhood in south Chicago, let alone, seen the world. So, we were thrilled a few months ago with the opportunity for him to train with other young men for an ocean voyage of self-discovery, teamwork and transformation from their criminal pasts.

Nigel has made bad choices and been in jail eight times. He has been exposed to violence and trauma that is the norm for his neighborhood. Each time, he vowed to make a change but hasn’t yet done so. He is a regular at our Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which supports young people coming out of jail to make better choices for their future.

Sail for Justice asked us for a recommendation of a young person who was deeply involved in the juvenile justice system who might benefit from its novel approach. The group selects eight young men, flies them to Baltimore for a month of training and preparation, and flies them to Spain where they sail a 65-foot boat across the Mediterranean. The crew would stop at port cities to do service projects along the way, and compete in a race across the Atlantic – from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas.

Nigel left in September for Baltimore and lasted about a month in his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He went on retreat, trained in navigating a boat, and learned a little more about himself and others. But he had a hard time adjusting. He called frequently, saying he wanted to come home, and I tried to persuade him to stay one more day. At one point, he seemed ready to tackle this opportunity, but ultimately he begged to come home.

The tough kid who knows the mean streets of south Chicago was afraid – of the water, the unknown, his potential? I’m not sure. He didn’t advance past Baltimore.

The other young men selected from throughout the U.S. for this unique program also came back home early, although many of them did make it to Europe. Posts on Sail for Justice’s Facebook page suggested that negative behaviors that emerged among the crew would have jeopardized their safety at sea. The young men haven’t been abandoned, however. Each is getting some kind of help toward a transition to a better life.

Nigel is back home, studying at Chicago Public’s alternative school downstairs from our offices. He lives with his mom. If nothing else, he got a taste of something other than what he’s known in his young life. He never had exposure to the outside world, and only knew the neighborhood. Now, he knows there is something beyond this neighborhood, and the experience seems to have enkindled some desire to embrace it.

Time will tell. We’re not giving up on him.