M.V. Ocean Academy: Teamwork made this dream work

Sailing can make a difference in a child’s life, as in this collaborative effort over the summer.


Author Dianne Braley, who lived on the Island for many years and still returns for part of the summer, wrote a powerful book, “The Silence in the Sound,” which is set here and inspired by actual events. While the plot includes the protagonist providing nursing care for Pulitzer prizewinning author and Island resident William Styron until he passed, it also movingly details the devastating effects of growing up in a family with addiction.

In 2022, while on the Island, Braley saw Michael Blanchard’s inspirational calendars, which raise money for various Island groups, the majority of which relate to those working with people with addiction. She says, “Seeing Michael’s calendar inspired me to seek out a charity for kids of addiction, as that is my book’s fundamental premise — addiction’s effects.” Braley then went on to research programs, and found RFK Community Alliance and its COASA (Children of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) division, which provides opportunities for these children to learn about their unique needs and work toward the healing and thriving that is essential to living rich lives, breaking their isolation, and learning to differentiate between the person they love and the illness that person has. After multiple meetings with her publisher and RFK, Braley decided to give part of her proceeds to them — with her publisher making his own as well.

Previously, Braley had been in touch with Casey Blum, co-executive director at Martha’s Vineyard Ocean Academy, when exploring the program for her son. They run weeklong voyages on the Shenandoah, which go far beyond a recreational summer camp program. In addition to mariner competencies and environmental stewardship, they are centered around personal development. “We really focus on helping kids develop resilience skills that they can use later in life to face challenges,” Braley says. “After talking with Casey, I realized it was so much more than just a camp, but a real growing experience to help and nurture kids. They are about changing lives to develop these much-needed resilience skills. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if an RKF COASA kid could experience this as well as the Vineyard, which is my heart’s forever home.”

RFK selected a young woman from Southeastern Massachusetts. Blum reports that there was a significant transformation. As part of a focus group they did this summer, she says, “It was really great hearing her responses. She talked a lot about how she hadn’t wanted to come before the trip. Her parents wanted her to do it, she felt kind of pressured into it, and that there was no way it was going to be fun. Even watching the videos on our website didn’t influence her.” Apparently, she thought the kids were lying, and it was not going to be a good experience.

“She was blown away by the friends she was able to make onboard, and just how much fun she had,” Blum says. “She is right in that age range, 14 to 15, when everybody is making friends through devices. She talked a lot about how nice it was not to have a phone. To be able to unplug and actually connect in a real-world setting. I would say she had one of the bigger transformations on the boat that week.” Blum shares that Martha’s Vineyard Ocean Academy has a sliding-scale tuition because they want to make the experience accessible to any child. “We really love working with this population, and would love to continue this work in the future,” she says.

Naomi Reville LeBlanc, associate vice president of advancement at RFK, explains, “It’s amazing when we can offer one of our kids who has dealt with trauma, with a less-than-ideal life, a really exciting opportunity. It’s a confidence builder as well. A loved one’s substance abuse or alcoholism has a profound impact on a child for the rest of their lives — low self-esteem, relationship problems, the higher likelihood they will develop addictions, depression, and anxiety. Anything that can be done to overcome that, and [have] these children see their true potential, is really valuable. Across our programs, we work with kids who have dealt with trauma and with [being] COASA, specifically substance abuse and addiction. They all suffer from low self-esteem and need to make better connections within their community, with friends, and their family. It’s a lifelong rebuilding process that we strive to help them start.”

Braley is thrilled the experience was so positive, and hopes to make the collaboration for a child who grew up like her, affected by addiction and with lesser means, happen again. “I went to an inner-city camp for kids of low means. It was life-changing. Going on the Shenandoah can really change a kid’s life. I lived in the inner city, and just lived in a little bubble there. Sometimes you never get out of that. It’s nice to see that there is a big world out there, and the Vineyard is a magical place. To give someone that experience was really exciting.”

Learn more about Dianne C. Braley at diannecbraley.com. Find out more about Martha’s Vineyard Ocean Academy at mvoceanacademy.org.