Steve Barnes, Becoming a Better Man
I grew up in a close-knit single parent household that was full of love. We were quite happy until I reached my teen years, at which time I became rebellious in an effort to “find” myself – a process that was intensified due to the lack of a strong, positive male role model. I knew that my dad, who lived in another city, loved me. I don’t blame him for the mistakes I made. But I missed the guidance that a son can only get from his father. As a teen, I got involved in drugs and alcohol and began skipping school and running away from home.
When I was 15, I went to live with my father because my mother was no longer able to control me. My substance abuse continued and eventually I ran into trouble with the law. I found myself in a stark, hopeless cellblock of a juvenile detention center, awaiting trial. It was here that I found God and began trying to turn my life around. As a first-time offender, I was sentenced to six weeks in a drug rehabilitation center. Although I was committed to change, my family didn’t feel they could trust me and were unwilling to let me move back home after my release. I was 16 years old.
Left without hope, I turned to my counselor who put me in touch with Doug and Robbie Smith of Safe Harbor Boys Home in Jacksonville, FL. When I explained my situation to the Smiths, they took me in without hesitation. I arrived at Safe Harbor in late 1985, wanting to change my life, but having no real idea of what that entailed. I didn’t understand that becoming a man meant more than just staying off of drugs, it meant changing my life. My stubbornness and lack of personal responsibility earned me hours of drudgery, including sanding and varnishing one of the boats. At the time, I felt it was a senseless punishment, but later I realized that it taught me many valuable lessons, including patience, persistence, the value of work, and pride.
After several months in the program, I earned privileges and was given the opportunity to produce my own television program, which was broadcast on local cable. This experience taught me that I could achieve any goal, and to never let fear or doubt stand in the way of trying something new, even if it seemed out of reach.
When I arrived at Safe Harbor, I had fewer than half of the credits I needed to graduate high school. Within a year, I earned all of the credits I needed while maintaining an “A” average. I left Safe Harbor as an 18 year old high school graduate in June 1987.
Many of my friends ended up in prison or crippled by substance abuse. I likely would have been one of them, but thanks to Safe Harbor, I escaped those pitfalls. I attended college, earning BA degrees in both political science and journalism. I graduated from both programs with honors, despite working full-time to support a young family.
I went on to become a journalist, working for several news outlets including the Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel. In May, 2008, I resigned from the Sentinel to accept an appointment to the Seminole Soil and Water Conservation District, a subdivision of the state that works to protect water supplies. In November 2008, I was elected by a wide margin to a four-year term on the board – a victory that I had once thought impossible considering my background and limited means.
I currently volunteer with groups that support education and work to protect the environment, and I serve as a “Citizen Diplomat” with the International Council of Central Florida, an outreach of the U.S. Department of State.
I have had many successes in life, but none compare to my greatest success: seeing my two wonderful daughters grow into intelligent, compassionate, and responsible young women, and being able to father them in a way I would have never known. If nothing else in my life had gone according to plan, I would still feel like a success because of the way they have turned out, and I know this would not have been possible without the guidance I received at Safe Harbor.
Today, I use the sailing skills and love of boating I learned at Safe Harbor to help at-risk teens. Last year, I helped my sailing club, the Lake Monroe Sailing Association, start a youth sailing program that gives at-risk and disadvantaged teens the opportunity to learn to sail under the tutelage of club members who volunteer their boats, fuel, and other supplies at no cost to the kids. I understand that being a teenager is not an easy thing; there are many challenges and temptations that I sometimes wonder how any of them get through it.
At Safe Harbor, I learned that while sometimes bad things do happen to good people, the decisions we make have consequences, and grasping that is the first step toward taking control of one’s life and making it a success. Safe Harbor taught me to take control of my life. Safe Harbor taught me the importance of personal responsibility, dedication to family, and service to others. Safe Harbor taught me to be a better man.
There are several very influential people I would like to thank – without whose support, love, and care I would not be the same today: the preacher who first introduced me to God in a way that I could understand; my grandmother who always stood by me and who taught me invaluable life lessons; my mother who instilled in me the values that continue to guide my life, and my father, with whom I now have a close relationship.
Finally, I’d like to thank Doug and Robbie for helping me turn my life around and all of those who have supported the program financially or served as volunteers – they should all know that they are making a difference and that when a child’s life is turned around, it creates a ripple effect that can have an impact for generations to come.