Out to sea

Children in Belgium set sail and create lasting memories thanks to the hard work and dedication of several Kiwanis clubs.

Story and photography by Kasey Jackson


I’m in a car headed from Ghent city center to Nieuwpoort on the coast of Belgium and the weather is questionable at best. Gray clouds swirl almost violently above, and the wind is picking up. Conversation has of course turned to the impending rain. It becomes apparent quickly that it’s actually a downpour.

Certainly not the best sailing weather.

But on this day in late August, Kiwanis members from several clubs in Belgium and one in France are heading to this coastal town to create memories for more than 100 children who have one goal for the day: get out on a boat on the North Sea. Weather simply can’t stand in the way.

On the scene in Nieuwpoort, several buses, trucks and carloads of children already have arrived. The kids are running around, laughing, playing games that have been set up in the parking lot by members of the Kiwanis Club of Avelgem, the club organizing this event. The kids, naturally, are oblivious to the weather conditions. The adults are adding jackets.

Things are underway.

Two Kiwanians are in a food truck dishing out Belgian fries for the fryer. A woman is ladling soup. A few more Kiwanians and volunteers are helping register each child. Several Kiwanians are carrying clipboards, keeping track of which skippers are present, how many each boat can hold and who is sailing in each time slot. A group is preparing mussels for lunch while another small group is assembling life jackets on several tables.

This is the Kiwanis Sail 4 Children. And it’s a well-oiled machine.

“This is such a great event, let’s hope the rain stays away,” says Filipe Delanote, member of the Kiwanis Club of Torhout Houtland and vice chairman-Europe for The Eliminate Project campaign. Weather is still obviously on everyone’s mind.

But the squeals of delight from the children brighten a day that is otherwise blustery, gray and cold.

“Some kids here have never seen the sea,” Delanote continues. “Never been on a train. Never been on a bus. Never been on a boat. We give them another view on the world. They see there are possibilities in life. And you know, people from all over town come to see this. People from other clubs are here to see how it’s going.”

Some of those Kiwanis members are from the Mouvaux Kiwanis Club in France, just across the border. Their club is looking at the Sail 4 Children project with hopes to start their own, similar project. And that’s just fine with Manu Van Loven, 2011–12 president of the Avelgem Kiwanis Club and the man who started this project five years ago after he saw a Sail 4 Children event and wanted to get involved.

“I saw an organization that was sailing with children with two catamarans,” he says. “The organization needed money, so Kiwanis Avelgem gave them money, and we were able to charter their two boats. Quickly we had children to take part, but not enough boats. We called a few skippers and asked for help. And then, all of a sudden, people would see me and ask if they could help.”

The project has grown significantly since then. More children, more boats, more sponsors, more donations and more volunteers.

In August 2012, a week or so before school started, several Kiwanis Sail 4 Children events were held. Ghent. Kortrijk. Nieuwpoort. Ostend. Six Kiwanis clubs take part to give more than 200 children a holiday at sea, just in time for the summer’s end.

“When kids go back to school, they can share stories of the boats, the games they played, the great people they met,” says volunteer Isabelle Van de Populiere. “A lot of the kids wouldn’t have had a special holiday, and sometimes they feel they need to make something up for their friends and teachers. These kids don’t have to lie. They have a real story to tell, and that’s so special.”

As she wraps up her story, the children are finishing their lunches. And something brilliant has happened.

The sun is out and the sky is blue.

It’s time to sail.


The children are told to watch their steps as they climb from the dock onto the boat. Their eyes widen as they look all around. Two girls, one with her face painted with a rainbow design, are giggling to each other. They sit together, and it’s obvious they’re finding it hard to contain themselves. They point at the mast. They point down the stairs at the living quarters below. They point at me. One asks what I’m holding.

“It’s a video camera. Do you want to see it?” I ask, handing it to her.

She doesn’t understand English well, so the skipper explains what I have, and she willingly takes it and captures herself, her friend and all of the rest of the passengers on the boat. The smile on her face could light up a room.

I find a spot out of the way, but within arm’s reach of the ropes. The water is still a bit rough from the earlier wind and rain. But this way, I have a bird’s-eye view of the kids as we hit the first waves.

“Ahhhhh!” they all seem to scream in unison, followed by high-pitched laughter and looks of disbelief as the front end of our boat lifts up out of the water and slams down, spraying water in on all sides. This goes on for a few minutes. With each wave, a louder squeal.

They are loving it.

Back on dry land, organizer Manu Van Loven watches the children as they arrive from their afternoon sail. His smile matches those on the kids’ faces.

I pull aside a Kiwanian to help interpret the children’s reactions to their day.

“I love the boat,” says a giddy 10-year-old girl. “It was windy on my face!”

“I like the face painting. I look like a star,” says another girl, age 9.

Looking over at the crowd of Kiwanians who have gathered near the children as they take off their life vests, it’s obvious. The day is a success.

“I always say that for me, the biggest decoration is the smile on the children’s faces,” Van Loven says. “And you know, the first time I did this, most people thought it wouldn’t work. Then it worked and everyone wanted to keep this as a project for our club. But I visited other clubs in the area and had inter-clubs, and I explained our system. I told everyone I would help.

“When I’m older, I have a dream that on the last Sunday (in August) anywhere in the world where there’s water, there are children out on it being happy. Tour de France is known all over. I’d like this to be known all over the world as a Kiwanis event.”

Vincent Salembier, who is a member of the Kortrijk Kiwanis Club, smiles as he watches the kids scurry off to play games, get ice cream or a last-minute face painting. He knows the significance of the day on these kids’ lives. It’s something they’ll never forget.

“It’s all for them. It’s all for the children,” he says. “They go back to school, to their friends soon. And they’re going to have a story:

“I’ve been to the sea. …”

This article originally appeared in print in the March 2013 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

Tips for a successful sailing project
  • Use a guidebook. This will help you keep track of things to do, be more efficient and improve the project each year.
  • Develop a good sponsoring strategy.
  • Invite a lot of volunteers and assign each a specific job. Have backup team ready.
  • Have a few spare boats. Depending on the weather conditions, some boats can’t sail.
  • Have a backup plan. Since this type of event is very dependent upon the weather, it’s good to develop techniques that allow the day to be a success regardless of weather.
  • Have a safety plan.

—Courtesy of Michel Davidts, president of the Kiwanis Sail 4 Children organizing commission


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