Sailing for success: I CAN yachting program helps foster children learn ropes of life

On the bow of the 100-foot sailing yacht “S/Y Wisdom,” the name “No Ordinary Liz” has also been carefully painted for all to see while it’s moored in a port or at dockside.
The vessel’s moniker is a tribute to a Liz Sutherland, who’s referred to -- due to her willpower to achieve and excel in life -- as the “inspiration” for not only the vessel, but for the entire I CAN Foundation for vulnerable youth.

I CAN is a nonprofit, Weston, FL-based organization that allows young adults from 18 to 24, most of whom have aged out of foster care, the opportunity sail away into brighter futures. These adults go on 90-day sailing trips into the Caribbean and while on board, learn about other cultures, sailing and social skills, sea survival, oceanography, meteorology, filmmaking and various life skills and leave with scuba certifications and captains’ licenses.

For each I CAN outing, six to eight participants go out every three months for their sea adventures, 27 of the 90 days are totally at sea. The yacht next departs April 25 from St. Petersburg and will go to the Bahamas, DominiCAN Republic, Antigua, St. Lucia and Dominica.

Sutherland, now 41, was on an I CAN venture from Oct. 1 to 11, 2021, going to the island nation of Antigua. Although due to an engine malfunction, the yacht was unable to sail, the New Port Richey resident and her boyfriend stayed aboard while docked in a marina, working with the crew and learning about the local culture and food. They also volunteered with Meals on Wheels to deliver food to senior residents, planted trees, met with organizations and students, made inspirational bracelets and helped at a Salvation Army location for sexually battered girls.

“The participation in the local community was really impactful,” says Sutherland, who works as a leadership enablement coordinator in Tampa.
Sutherland was born in Cadiz, Spain, but at age 5 was taken by the man she considered her father to her grandmother’s house in Waynesville, NC and left there with her older brother and younger sister.
At 13, Sutherland was placed in foster care, separate from her siblings, and stayed in that care until she was 18. She worked for Walmart, became “homeless,” and, with grants and financial assistance, in 2003 got an associate of arts degree. She then went on to graduate in computer information systems and criminal justice from Western Carolina University.
The I CAN Foundation trip and experiences was another paddle stroke in the wave of life achievements since leaving foster care, adds Sutherland. I CAN’s founder Sean Ives and Jeff Wisdom of the Wisdom Family Foundation resource referral organization for children and families invited her to most I CAN and its crew’s most recent venture.

Sutherland published her book “No Ordinary Liz” in 2018 to show how she “survived and thrived” in foster care, saying: “I’m trying to change the perception society had off foster care. People think you’re a criminal or juvenile delinquent. I want people to take a walk in their shoes.”

“I like to tell these young adults, even though it says: ‘No Ordinary Liz,’ it’s actually for you -- for your story. They’re part of my story, now I’m part of their story,” she adds. 
Part of that story is being experienced by I CAN participants like Gauge Adams. The 18-year-old from Grand Junction, CO was recently on the S/Y Wisdom-No Ordinary Liz yacht in port in St. Petersburg.

Adams was in foster care until he was 14 and now lives in Grand Junction, working online for an arcade. He boarded the boat April 8 and joined I CAN after finding out about it on Facebook from his mentor, Kim Raff. The current trip is his first time sailing.

“I think it will be a great learning experience, to do things you haven’t yet learned or you want to learn about. I’m looking forward to getting out there, sailing and seeing what all is out there,” he says.
In the U.S., 5 million young adults from 18 to 24 aren’t in school or working, states I CAN. Additionally: only 1 in 10 youths from low-income families graduate from a four-year college; more than 23,000 children each year age out of U.S. foster care; and only one of every two of them have jobs by age 24.

According to I CAN, the foundation works with various foster programs to determine options for student participation, asking local programs supporting the initiative to find boating participants. I CAN states oftentimes, once a youth turns 18, he or she is no longer supported by those who CAN help prepare their futures.

Preparation for life outside of foster care is one of the most important elements to the I CAN Foundation’s goals, says it founder Sean Ives.
From the yacht in Ft. Lauderdale, Ives, 51, says I CAN developed from his friendship with Wisdom after the two looked for “cool or unique” ways to help children. Ives, a native of South Africa, taught sailing, worked in the corporate field and now is a yacht manager. He says after spending time at sea 30 years ago, he realized how much discipline and focus he gained from the ventures.
“It built my confidence, self-esteem and belief in myself so much at that age. I thought how amazing it would be if every child at that age could have that experience. The life lessons a goat aboard that boat at 19 has stayed with me,” he says.
The other main component to I CAN yachting trips is the social aspect, as the crew becomes a participant’s family for three months.
“You live with them, you with eat with them, spend every day – good and bad – experiencing things together,” says Ives, who continues, “They’re all life lessons and so needed for the foster care community when they age out. We to show they really, really CAN do this. We want to show that to the students.”

For information, call (828) 226-4650 or visit the I CAN Foundation online.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.