Breaking down big city barriers

Published on March 12th, 2021

On the southwest side of Chicago, Currie Metro High School freshman Grace O’Neil remembers vividly the first day she sailed on Lake Michigan at age eight.

“It was an extremely windy day, and the instructors were trying to teach us how to jibe and tack, but all I could think was that I was going to fall in the water,” she recalls.

Today, this fourteen-year-old South Sider is a member of the US Sailing Youth Advisory Board. Grace is also an instructor-in-training in Jackson Park Yacht Club (Chicago, IL) Foundation’s (JPYC) youth sailing program and competes on its 420 Race Team.

“Nowadays, I feel completely confident at the helm of a sailboat. I’ve learned so much – not just about sailing, but certain life skills like overcoming fear, teamwork, clear communications and believing in myself.”

Although previously considered a leisure pastime only available to affluent whites, sailing is becoming increasing accessible to minorities, and Grace attributes much of her success in sailing to two Chicago siblings – Karen and Joey Harris.

Raised near the lakefront in Hyde Park, the Harris kids recognized the value of sailing at an early age. Their mother, a Chicago Public School teacher – determined to keep her children engaged and active during the summer months – gave them a choice: summer school or sailing school. They chose the latter and never looked back.

Joey Harris

Today, Joey is the manager of sailing for the Chicago Park District. Without a doubt, Chicago’s most beloved youth sailing instructor, Joey is a regular fixture each summer at Burnham Harbor. His sister Karen is past commodore of Chicago’s most diverse yacht club, Jackson Park Yacht Club, and the current president of JYPC Foundation.

With the racial makeup of the Chicago Public School student body at less than 11% white, the two siblings devote much of their time promoting and ensuring accessibility to sailing for young city kids.

Grace first met Joey through the America’s Cup Endeavor Program in Chicago, which introduces students to sailing as a way to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). Joey’s career has provided so many people with the opportunity to sail that, in 2019, he was inducted into the Lake Michigan Sailing Hall of Fame.

Joey graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1992 where he was on the sailing team and was Freshman Team Captain. His professional sailing career began at Columbia Yacht Club as director of sailing – the same place where he and his sister learned to sail.

Since then, Joey has coached and directed sailing programs throughout the United States, from San Francisco to Grosse Pointe to Lake Forest, before landing back home at the Chicago Park District in 2009.

Today, Joey oversees the Judd Goldman Community Sailing Program, an initiative he helped develop with the merging of the Chicago Park District Rainbow Fleet and the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Program.

“Unlike basketball, where it’s easy to join a neighborhood game at the local park, sailing has perceived barriers,” says Joey. “City kids see no clear path to that sailboat out on the lakefront. That’s why it’s important to reach out to these youngsters with programs that offer accessibility to sailing.”

Karen Harris

Several summers after completing the Endeavor program, Grace met Joey’s older sister Karen. Through Karen’s efforts to expand the JPYC Foundation, Grace was offered a no-cost scholarship to their junior sailing program.

A Harvard Law School graduate (Princeton undergrad), Karen is the quintessential overachiever.

However, despite her current position as general counsel for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association (currently overseeing the legal aspects of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts for some 200-plus hospitals), Karen takes the time to mentor young people like Grace.

Recent recipient of the US Sailing’s 2020 Outstanding Organizational Leader, Karen also sails the yearly Chicago to Mackinac Race on Mise en Place, a Beneteau Oceanis 381 owned by Paul Thompson, another former commodore of Jackson Park Yacht Club. She also serves as the interim chair of US Sailing’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.

“Sailing is the great equalizer,” says Karen. “It enables people of all incomes and races to leave their troubles on shore and face the elements. It’s just you, your team, and the wind.”

For young sailors like Grace, her experiences on the lake can have a big impact on her future.

“I already know I’m smart, but I can improve other skills through sailing,” she says. “Like tamping down emotions in stressful situations to convey and clear and concise messages.”

Growing stronger on the water is an experience the Harris siblings generously promote and share with the next generation of Chicago sailors.

Source: Mary Ann O’Rourke, Chicago Maritime Museum

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