Finding Joy and Adventure at Gold Star Sailing Camp

It’s lunch time, and Gold Star Sailing Camp counselor and founder Patrick Powers is holding up an MRE – a “meal ready to eat,” a military staple – to about 20 campers.

“They may look small, but these MREs have enough calories to fuel trekking through the desert with a heavy pack! And they may look plain, but this is gourmet when you’re out in the field.”

Powers has the presence of a Green Beret, his authoritative air betraying his 20-plus years in the service. As he shows campers how to assemble their MREs – step by step, in a certain order – he regales them with real-life anecdotes of preparing and eating these meals in the field. Campers laugh, smile, and compare meals. Each MRE has slightly different contents, so the kids barter among themselves. A miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce for a bag of M&Ms; a bag of Chili for a PB&J.

What do MREs have to do with sailing? Or Gold Star families?

To Powers, who founded Gold Star Sailing in 2014, the MRE lunch is just one of the slate of activities that are all about building community and finding new adventures. The camp serves teens 13-19 who are members of a Gold Star Family – a family who has lost a loved one in military service. Teens come from across the country to participate in one of the two week-long camps Gold Star Sailing offers each year: one in Ft. Lauderdale and the other in Newport, Rhode Island.

In Newport, campers participate in a wide range of activities centered around sailing, the military, and their host city. Each morning brings a novel adventure, from rappelling with Green Berets to touring the historic mansions in Newport, while each afternoon campers get sailing lessons on Sail Newport’s fleet of J/22s. The camp pulls heavily from the veteran community for volunteers and activity leaders, giving the kids a different, positive way to connect with the military.

“When we pick them up at the airport, they’re like family that’s never met before: there’s a connection immediately. And through the team building events and some of the adventures, they share that experience together,” Powers explains.

Powers zeroed in on helping the families of fallen service members during his career as a Colonel in the army. He saw the reality of war – people got injured; people got killed. But often after the fighting, the families and loved ones of these service members were left behind.

“I always felt that we could have always done better by the families,” said Powers. “That’s where I wanted to try to help. Because I lost guys who had children and I thought, one of the greatest joys for me is to share my love of sailing with my children – maybe I could spread that joy to kids who don’t have parents to teach them.”

Why focus on sailing? From the first night Powers spent on a sailboat, he recognized the sport’s ability to transport; to get one out of their comfort zone, and to help forge bonds between crew members – something that can be especially helpful to young people experiencing the grief that comes with losing a parent. He recalled his first time spending the weekend at anchor on his uncle’s sailboat as a child, and how that experience felt like being in another world.

“It really set the hook for me,” said Powers. “I thought, wow, what if I could share that joy and that camaraderie and that adventure with kids who needed it?” – and Gold Star Sailing Camp was born.

Unlike other programs centered around loss of a family member, Gold Star Sailing camp isn’t a grief camp. Oftentimes, campers have spent years being singled out as a “gold star kid,” having people tiptoe around the sensitive topic of grief rather than treat them like regular kids. Powers uses the power of sailing, and the lessons that sailing teaches to gain confidence, learn leadership, and help campers get out of their grief and learn how to cope with the obstacles life throws at them.

Being immersed in sailing with other children who have experienced similar losses allows campers to work through their grief without feeling alone. Some of the lessons they learn from sailing help them on their grief journey.

For example, Powers compares preparing for a sailing trip to preparing for life. “Sailors, we must pay attention. We must be very careful who we surround ourselves with and pick our crew wisely,” he notes. “You can only control a couple of things in life. We all get dealt a crummy hand sometime, life is hard. The question is, what do you do then?”

The feedback from parents and campers has been resoundingly positive. Parents often note the unique focus on sailing and the small group atmosphere that inspires a closeness among campers, creating friendships that last far beyond camp. Many campers come back year after year, and when they are old enough, become camp councilors alongside Powers and other volunteers. Powers likes to keep it “in the family,” developing  campers  into councilors and mentors once they age out of the program.

Parents have also  appreciate the positive focus of the camp with its emphasis on  fun, adventure, and friendship. Gold Star Sailing focuses on fun, joy, and building lasting friendships for a group of children who often struggle with connecting with other children on a similar journey.

The real payoff sometimes comes after the kids have left camp. Powers recalled a conversation with the mom of a former camper. Talking about her daughter, she told him, “I haven’t seen her smile in a year. She can’t wait to come back to your camp. I’ve been looking for a program like yours, focused on joy and adventure.”

Powers takes a long pause after recalling this story, gathering himself. “It’s hard not to get emotional about it. We’ve had kids come to us, and their parents have told me that when we met them, they were in the darkest of places for a teenager. The darkest,” he notes, “and we brought them back from terrible places, we gave them hope and a different idea about what the future could include – a world of joy and adventure and friendships.”

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