To Keep Kids Out of Jail He Teaches Them How to Sail

BRISTOL, Maine — Samuel Johnson said, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail.”

Kurt Rauscher would disagree.

In 1997, Rauscher formed the Maine-based Maria Mercedes Foundation with the specific aim of keeping young men and women out of jail by turning them into sailors and boat-builders. And, most importantly, by turning them into morally conscious human beings.

Rauscher, a lifelong sailor and Navy veteran, was 48 when he began working with “at-risk” youth. The former health care risk manager “decided that perhaps, God willing, I could be of some use to my fellow human beings.”

He saw the need for people to work with teen-agers whose undisciplined lives combined with “a lack of Christianity in our society” led them to the first stages of alcoholism, violence, drug abuse and incarceration. He knew he could help.

With that belief, an old boat in need of work and some referrals from the Maine Department of Corrections, the Maria Mercedes Foundation was born.

To work with the state, the Maria Mercedes Foundation remains — technically — a secular organization, but in truth Catholicism informs every aspect of the program, from grace before meals to the non-relativist approach to moral issues.

It is a quality Father Stephen Mulkern, a local retired priest, has observed. As he put it, “The name itself tells you that the foundation is Catholic.” Maria Mercedes is Spanish for Mary the Merciful.

Rauscher maintains the Catholic identity of the program because the Church forms the very bedrock of what he is trying to accomplish.

“We have 2,000 years of Church teaching to help us answer all of the hard questions,” he said. “Kindness to others, obeying the law, no pre-marital sex and all the issues that seem to be blurred for them but are crystal clear to us because we are Catholic.”

In the seven years Rauscher has operated the foundation, the program has been refined to a unique blend of boat building, seamanship and often-subliminal counseling. During the winter session, the clients — medium- to high-risk juvenile offenders — spend two nights a week in the boat shop developing a work ethic and a sense of responsibility as they learn basic carpentry skills with a dose of academics thrown in.

“We get the client engaged in an activity, boat building or sailing, and once he is disarmed by the act of ‘doing,’ we introduce a subject such as drug usage as a natural course of events,” Rauscher explained. “With these kids it's no use using the adult model for drug counseling — sitting in a room talking about drugs.”

Each client begins by building a toolbox, giving him something he can keep and be proud of. Rauscher stocks each box with a collection of the basic hand tools needed for woodworking. From there, clients build small rowboats and participate in the construction of a 20-foot sailboat.

Get Them Thinking

The effectiveness of that approach is not lost on the Maine Department of Corrections. “Kurt has a dynamic personality; he challenges the kids,” said Martha Takatsu, a juvenile community corrections officer who refers clients to Maria Mercedes. “It is small and hands-on. Kurt has them building something while talking about life skills.”

With the young people working shoulder to shoulder with Rauscher in the small boat shop, the counseling is done without them realizing it but is all the more effective for it. Over dinner (carried out with the strictest attention to table etiquette), Rauscher will ask a question out of the blue such as, “So, what happens to you after you die?”

Soon the apprentices are discussing things they might never have thought of before: “Why should we bother being nice to each other?” “Why should people who are married stay married?” The questions are designed to get the kids to consider moral issues, and they do.

“Maria Mercedes encourages spirituality and good moral decisions, which is very important for young people,” said Kendra Potz, who, as prosecuting attorney for Maine's Midcoast District, has had plenty of opportunity to see the program in action. “A lot of these kids don't think about morality.”

Potz admits she is a big fan of Maria Mercedes. “The kids might have a very bad attitude in court,” she said, but after working with Rauscher, “they come back and their whole demeanor has changed.” Rauscher has even taken clients shopping and bought them presentable clothes for a court date.

The workshop setting serves admirably for giving the kids the structure and discipline their lives lack, but for structure and discipline there is no venue like a boat.

“The ultimate authoritative community in the secular world would either be prison or a sailboat,” Rauscher said. “And since the allure of adventure and freedom as represented in sailing is much more motivating than incarceration, young people tend to listen better to instruction.”

Winter's End

Bristol is located on the Maine coast halfway between the New Hampshire state line and the Canadian border. It is a solidly maritime community, encompassing the small fishing ports of New Harbor and Round Pond with ties to the sea that go back generations. Like many Maine coastal towns, it has a wide economic mix — wealthy retirees alongside working-class and often poor longtime locals.

That dichotomy and the economic pressure it brings to bear on the less-wealthy residents of Bristol is part of the reason for the increase in juvenile crime.

When the cold Maine winter ends, Maria Mercedes moves into its summer sailing program.

“Teaching respect for authority on a sailboat is obvious in that there can be only one person in charge,” Rauscher said. Working and living in tight quarters — clients are on the boat for a week at a time — demands consideration for others, teamwork, cooperation and respect for authority.

More than 60% of clients who graduate from the program stay out of trouble, “a very high success rate,” Potz said, and a rate much higher than most programs. Parents have credited Maria Mercedes with saving their children's lives.

Jim Nelson writes from Harpswell, Maine.