ABLE To Sail Empowers Local Youth

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Story by Kortny Rolston-Duce and Photography by Kort Duce, Colorado Exposure

It’s a hazy July morning along Union Reservoir near Longmont and people are milling about the beach, unloading paddle boards, kayaks, towels, and supplies.

Some are families or groups of friends staking out sand or shade for the day. Others are walking dogs to the canine-friendly beach on the southeastern edge of the body water. And still others are unloading gear for the various camps and classes held at Union Reservoir throughout the summer.

At the covered pavilion just east of the sand volleyball court, a different group is unloading a cobalt blue FJ Cruiser covered in ABLE To Sail decals, setting up a white board, looking at rosters and greeting parents and students as they arrive. The young volunteers and staff are lively, talkative, and bantering with Diane McKinney, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit program.

Many started off attending the weeklong sailing program as elementary and middle school students and have stayed on to help McKinney. They were interested in sailing but the energetic McKinney and her passion helping kids have prompted them to return summer after summer.

ABLE (A Better Life Experience) To Sail teaches campers to sail but the primary goal of the program is to inspire and empower students to apply those lessons to life and learn that it is possible to recover from capsizing in their lives, and learn to safely navigate youth.

Audrey Halbert, an ABLE To Sail staffer, enrolled in her first camp with McKinney at age 12. Learning to sail looked interesting but after the four-day camp, she had learned something else – she was enough. It was a pivotal time. She felt different, out of place, and bullied. Hearing McKinney talk about her own struggles made her realize she wasn’t alone.

“It really changed my life,” Halbert said. “I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I didn’t know I could feel good about myself all by myself. When (McKinney) tells her story, it makes you realize people are able to do it.”

Staffer Audrey Halbert, 19, from Longmont, CO, is all smiles while teaching sailing for Diane McKinney of ABLE To Sail at Union Reservoir in Longmont.

“It really changed my life. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I didn’t know I could feel good about myself all by myself. When (McKinney) tells her story, it makes you realize people are able to do it.” says Audrey Halbert.

A painful past

ABLE To Sail is as wrapped up in McKinney and her experiences as she is in it.

It’s impossible to grasp that without first understanding McKinney, her struggles, and what prompted her to kick her decades-long addiction to drugs to help students along the Front Range embrace themselves.

McKinney, now 54, built the program from her own experiences and learnings. She knows firsthand what it feels like to feel different, ostracized, and never good enough. She understands why that pushes youths and adults to find escape from pain in drugs, cutting, suicide or even taking a gun to school to harm others.

Diane McKinney instructs campers during a lesson at Union Reservoir in Longmont, CO.

“There’s just so much pain and we do whatever it takes to not feel it,” she said.

McKinney grew up in St. Louis in a family that, from the outside, appeared to be the all-American version.

Her mother was a housewife dedicated to raising her children and supporting her husband who worked as an aerospace engineer at McDonnell Douglas.

McKinney was a star soccer player who made a name for herself as a top-level goalkeeper. She was in line for a soccer and academic scholarship to a few Ivy League schools but chose to attend college at the University of Denver (as she had grown up attending Cheley Camps in Estes Park).

From the outside, her path and future appeared bright and clear. But inside, McKinney constantly berated herself for not meeting her mother’s standards and never feeling like she was good enough.

She remembers playing against a state championship soccer team and deflecting ball after ball, setting a school record. Her team lost 1-0 – not by the rout that had been predicted. Her efforts had helped stave off a blowout and she was thrilled at her performance.

She discussed the game with her mother who commented that they wouldn’t have lost if McKinney had blocked, “that one goal.” The words, whether intended to hurt or not, destroyed McKinney from the inside out. It was just more proof that she would never be good enough.

Her feelings of being an outsider in her own family intensified when she later learned she was adopted and by being forced out of the closet in the 1980s, a difficult era for anyone to acknowledge he or she was gay.

“I always felt different or that I didn’t belong,” she said. “When I found out I was adopted, feeling unlovable made more sense. And I always interpreted my adopted mom’s inability to hug me or be affectionate as proof that I wasn’t lovable.”

McKinney left Missouri for Colorado, intending to start fresh. She credits a college friend with introducing her to sailing and helping her discover a new passion.

They took a sailboat to Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins and spent the day on the water. The morning was calm but by afternoon, the sky clouded, and the winds whipped. McKinney’s friend passed out from drinking and she was left to navigate the weather, having absolutely no idea how to sail.

In spite or maybe even because of the harrowing experience, McKinney was hooked. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, McKinney relished the adventure of sailing. She convinced a bank to loan her a mere $300 to purchase her first sailboat.

“I love everything about it,” she said.

But neither sailing nor college was enough to keep McKinney on the right path. Still hurting and struggling, she turned to drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Because anything was better than feeling like a failure. For years, she found solace in substance abuse and went to rehab several times. She was arrested for drug-related issues in her late 30s and early 40s, she was homeless for almost four years, jokingly calling herself, “a professional camper,” at Union Reservoir for some of that time.

McKinney’s turning point came two years after her mother, whose approval she never stopped seeking, died while she was in jail, having disowned her and writing her out of the family trust.

After vehemently trying to kill that pain, and herself on two explicit occasions, in December of 2010, McKinney entered rehab for the fifth time.  She and others went to hear a woman speak.  The woman looked out at the audience of 1,500, and said, “Y’all, I have to tell you that you are enough. You always have been. Just because the people in your life were unable to tell you that, does not negate that truth – you are enough and we need you.”

McKinney was so thirsty to hear those words that it didn’t matter they were uttered by a stranger. 

Her jaw dropped in awe, and that woman became her teacher, mentor and spiritual advisor, to this day. She then began a journey of learning about “self” esteem – affirming who she really is, learning about self- forgiveness and celebration of herself to change her self-negating and painful belief system, which always sought relief.

She learned self-esteem is not innate. It is learned. It is a skill that can be taught.  Just like sailing.

“I always felt different or that I didn’t belong, when I found out I was adopted, feeling unlovable made more sense. And I always interpreted my adopted mom’s inability to hug me or be affectionate as proof that I wasn’t lovable.” says Diane McKinney.

Sober and healthy

McKinney’s life changed. She lived in a poor neighborhood, scraping by but she was sober and healthier than she’d been in years.

She connected with the kids in her neighborhood who were struggling with their own issues. She saw herself – and her pain – in them, and wished she had learned about how beliefs drive behavior, and how, when the belief changes, the behavior automatically follows suit, when she was 15, not 45.

She found analogies in sailing. In sailing, you steer right to go left and vice versa. It’s counterintuitive and the complete opposite of riding a bike or driving a car, and so you must completely change your thinking about, “how to steer.”

She thought about the other lessons she had learned sailing and how so much of it was a metaphor for life: Looking forward, not back; that little changes make a big difference; that it’s safer to stay out of the storm; you can right a boat after capsizing; you can find your way safely back to shore; and mostly do not abandon ship.

That was in 2012.  ABLE To Sail was born.

A new way of thinking

Steer right to go left. Change your thinking.

That phrase captures the essence of ABLE To Sail. It’s less about sailing, and more about remembering who you really are, free of judgement for past mistakes, and learning to re-frame your thoughts to create an empowering belief system of “enoughness.”

The curriculum and program are something McKinney has built from the ground up, based on her sailing skills and life experiences. In 2019, she received a national award from the U.S. Sailing Association for Outstanding Innovations in Programming and McKinney is regularly asked to speak about the program and her experiences, most recently as the keynote speaker for the State of Colorado Department of Parks and Rec, summer kickoff conference.

Campers fill out surveys the first and last days of camp, rating questions such as, “I think I matter; that I belong,” to measure their growth. On average they see an 83 percent increase in self-esteem, pride, and how they view themselves and their futures.

At the end of each day, campers must name something that they are proud of themselves for doing, instead of what they did wrong. For many, it’s one of the hardest parts of the five-day camp. They also have an “I am” day where they focus on creating affirmations as a new way of thinking about themselves. By learning to think differently about steering, their minds more readily accept the change in how they think about themselves.

“It was really hard for me to do these at first,” said Serah Trowbridge, a former camper who now works as a staff member. “Now, I try to think about something I am proud of myself for every day and often think about what I am.”

Each day brings a new lesson on sailing and about themselves. McKinney is candid about her own struggles and finds a way to tie it in. It’s this openness that draws staff and campers alike. Hearing someone voice what they are feeling and who understands and has overcome her own struggles, helps them confront their own tumultuous emotions and pain.

“Having her open up helps you see that someone else has experienced what you have and that is possible to change the way you see yourself,” Halbert said.

“It was really hard for me to do these at first,” said Serah Trowbridge, a former camper who now works as a staff member. “Now, I try to think about something I am proud of myself for every day and often think about what I am.”

The most powerful generation

As McKinney introduced herself that hazy Monday morning and talked about the program and her own experiences, campers looked down in deep thought. It was clear her words were hitting home. Some return campers mentioned they had been looking forward to camp for months.

The mission and vision for the program are: “to prevent teen suicide, teen drug use, self-harm, school shootings and other violence related to bullying and low self-image by TEACHING self-esteem.” Because as McKinney points out, “Self-esteem is a skill which, like sailing, must be learned and practiced, in order to master.” And that emotional pain leads to destructive behavior.

The trailer McKinney uses to haul gear is adorned with names of young people who have committed suicide or overdosed. It’s a reminder of her own journey, her suicide attempts, and her newfound purpose.

McKinney knows this is what she was meant to do. She continues to raise funds and work with at-risk youth. Over the past nine years, more than 1,300 students from the across the Front Range have completed the program learning they are enough – and to sail. “This is the most powerful generation to ever walk the planet, and we need them – we need them to dance their dance, paint their painting, sing their song, etc. to SAVE this planet,” McKinney said. “And the only way they do that is if they have a foundational belief system rooted in their own greatness. I’m just the messenger. They are the doers, and it is the greatest honor and privilege of my life to witness their becoming-ness.”

To learn more about ABLE To Sail or to donate visit there website click here.

“Self-esteem is a skill which, like sailing, must be learned and practiced, in order to master.” says Diane McKinney

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