BERKELEY (CBS 5) - A small group of children lined up side by side along the port side of the sailboat Benjamin Walters.
"If you're holding on to a line and someone pulls on it, your finger could get trapped and you could get hurt," Captain Richard Gillette warned them as they watched with rapt attention.
This was no ordinary boat ride. Gillette was leading the group on a San Francisco Bay adventure. He and his all-volunteer crew take children on free trips 60 to 100 times a year to teach them to care for the bay.
Many of the passengers come from the Berkeley Boosters Police Activities League for a life-changing journey.
"We put them in a brand new -- totally new -- environment for them," Gillette explained. "It opens up their eyes, to get a world perspective."
Often, the young explorers are at-risk, disadvantaged, or suffering from illnesses like cancer.
Joshua Pearl brought his 9-year-old daughter Roan, who has leukemia.
"She'd never been sailing on the bay," Pearl said. "It made her happy."
Students like 13-year-old Ana Hernandez reported they've learned new skills.
"I can actually say that I know how to sail and can manage a sailboat," said Hernandez. "It's pretty cool."
For Gillette, a former professional photographer, deciding to lead the volunteer expeditions was easy.
"My childhood was on boats," he remembered. "I know what that can mean to a child - the adventure, getting the love of the sea and marine life."
Fele Uperesa of the Berkeley Boosters Police Activities League says it's making a difference.
"He really relates to the kids well, he's got great stories to share with them about being on the water. He's very passionate and the kids get that," Uperesa said.
Gillette spent more than a dozen years sailing similar journeys with thousands of kids for the Pegasus Project in Berkeley. Now, he's launching his own nonprofit, Spirit of the Sea. Right now, he can take 12 to 14 kids on a trip, but coming soon, he'll be able to take many more kids on a much bigger boat, the Ocean Watch, a 64-foot cutter that recently circled the American continents. The larger vessel will allow longer trips to Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay, with as many as 40 kids on board.
"I get to watch kids smile," Gillette said. "Everyone of these kids is like family to me."
So, for sailing free expeditions with thousands of Bay Area children, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Richard Gillette.
(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)
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