WITH HIS HISTORY OF DRUG USE and a theft arrest, 16-year-old Bleu Roberts says, “I’ve done just about everything bad you can think of.” At the moment though, as the latest arrival aboard Safe Harbor Boys Home, a refurbished Coast Guard tugboat docked in Jacksonville, Fla., he’s not only homesick but seasick. “The boat is swaying—do you feel that?” he asks, startled by the swells of the Saint Johns River below. For Doug Smith and his wife Robbie surrogate parents to a crew of up to 13 troubled teens at a time the waves are part of the plan. “The change of environment creates disequilibrium,” says Robbie “which makes it easier for other-changes to start coming in.”
For the past 12 years, Doug, 42, a former merchant seaman, and Robbie, 38, a graduate student in psychotherapy, have done what few others would dare: welcome juvenile delinquents into their home. The boys, ages 15 to 18, are most often referred to Safe Harbor by juvenile court systems. “[The Smiths’] philosophy is very effective—requiring kids to be responsible and imposing consequences when they aren’t,” says Mack Crenshaw, Jacksonville juvenile court judge. With stays lasting up to three years, the young deckhands undergo a rigorous boot-camp-meets-Boys Town training Chores include maintaining the vessel preparing meals and restoring donated boats Community service, such as trash pickup is required. And high school dropouts must earn a diploma.
“It’s important to teach kids responsibility, because that’s when they start to mature,” says Doug, whose methods of discipline include shaving transgressors’ heads or, in rare cases, paddling. (Florida allows corporal punishment.) Often victims of broken homes, the boys seem to thrive in the structured environment. “Without [the Smiths] I’d either be dead or in jail,” says Hunter Watson, 18, who left Safe Harbor last month and plans to enter the Coast Guard. “Now I’m trying to make something of my life.” Adds Nathan Shelton, 16, an admitted drug user who had been picked up for stealing a bike last year: “When I get out, I don’t think I’ll have problems. I’ll see kids who’ll say,’ Come on, man, smoke a joint,’ but I’ll just say, ‘Nah.’ ”
Doug himself is no stranger to adolescent-hardship. A Jacksonville native, he was 2 when his father, a Navy seaman, died in a car accident. Ignored by his mother, he says, he left home at 12 after his stepfather—who Doug says was a violent paranoid schizophrenic—made conditions unbearable. (After years of estrangement, Doug now occasionally talks to his mother by phone.) Living under Jacksonville’s Trout River Bridge, he supported himself working for local shrimpers. “It was hard and lonely,” he recalls. “They didn’t care how young I was as long as I could steer the boat and get a pound of shrimp a day.”
But in time Doug and his bosses grew friendly. And when he was 16, they offered him a seafarers’ union scholarship to a maritime academy, the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Md. “I climbed out of the ghetto, but I didn’t bootstrap it,” he says. “The people who helped me gave me opportunities.” After traveling in the merchant marine, he met Robbie when he was 20 at a Jacksonville diner. Then only 16, she came from a middle-class family that was put off at first by her date’s shabby appearance. “When he came to the door my mom said, ‘I think he has the wrong house,’ ” recalls Robbie, who married Doug nine months later. “Now they’ve taken him under their wing.”
Soon Doug was working in the Jacksonville shipyards and Robbie was a technician at a pharmacy. But their fortunes changed in 1978 when Doug opened a machine shop in Daytona Beach. Aggressively pursuing government contracts, he began making parts for, among other projects, the space shuttle simulator. But by 1980 he had 150 employees and “had the shakes from stress,” Robbie says. Recalls Doug: “I was making $1000 a day and was unhappy ” Burned out, he sold his business for over a million dollars in 1982, and the Smiths retired to their 50-foot yacht. Tranquillity was short-lived. Known in Jacksonville for his volunteer work with the Sea Scouts, Doug was asked by a local judge if he would take on two foster kids with behavioral problems for the summer. The Smiths reluctantly agreed. “Basically, I needed a crew,” says Doug.
Pleased by the results, the judge asked the Smiths to take on more at the end of the summer. At first Doug refused. Dealing with troubled teens, he says, “brought back memories that I’d been very good at ignoring. It was too painful.” Then he began to see a higher calling. “I realized I didn’t have the right to say no. The Lord had taken care of me all my life. Now He had given me a job to do.”
Since then the Smiths have steered 140 boys through Safe Harbor. Tracking their progress for a year after they leave, the couple has found that 126 stayed out of trouble. Several, like Steve Barnes, 26, who left 10 years ago and is now working as a photographer, send pictures of their wives and children. “I love them as much as my own parents,” he says. “They saved my life.” Having spent their savings on the program, Doug and Robbie—now seeking bigger quarters since the tugboat has fallen into disrepair—get by mostly on private donations (last year’s budget was $150,000) They have a waiting list of 500 and most important no regrets “I have never been happier,” says Doug. “Like I tell the kids, dwelling on the past makes you a prisoner to it. Here, we think about today and tomorrow.
CINDY DAMPIER in Jacksonville