What can I say? It’s been another epic year. I traveled to the Greek islands with Sail Future; I attended my fourth Rock Boat experience; I completed my fifth year on the board of directors of Rock by the Sea Charities (and attended Rock by the Sea for my seventh straight year); I started a podcast called Agents of Innovation; I traveled to Oregon with my family to see my brother Tony get married to my new sister, Ann; and I completed my eighth year working for The James Madison Institute.
In previous years, I’ve written really lengthy “year in review” blog posts. I’ve tried to give them a theme for the year. This time, I’m going to just give a few quick highlights and then a few thoughts at the end of things I learned that can’t always be encapsulated in the activities we did or the things we pursued.
Traveled the Greek Islands with Sail Future: I took a trip to the Greek island with Sail Future – we started in Athens, visiting that historic city. Then we spent seven nights aboard the 65’ sailing vessel, Defy the Odds. We visited the islands of Aegina, Dokos, Poros, Hydra, and the mainland beach cove in Methana. My friends Kristen, James, and Tyler, joined me, my friend and captain Michael Long, and 12 new friends we made. The funds we spent on the trip went to aid the Sarasota, Florida-based charity, Sail Future, which helps kids in the juvenile justice system find an alternative to incarceration by using sailing as a rehabilitative program. I detailed the experience in several blog posts, including this one.
Rockin’ all year long: I actually kicked off 2015 with a New Year’s Eve show (December 31, 2014) in Vienna, Virginia featuring Paul Pfau, Steve Everett, and Melodime! I then went on my fourth Rock Boat experience (from Miami to Cozumel) in late January. And, I went to my seventh straight Rock by the Sea charity music festival and also completed by fifth year serving on its board of directors. To date, the charity has raised over $400,000 to benefit multiple charities, including pediatric brain cancer. This year was a special treat, as my parents made it up (along with my Aunt Diane) for their first Rock by the Sea event. Now they know why I like it so much!
Traveled to Oregon for my brother’s wedding: On August 1, my brother Tony married Ann in a beautiful ceremony just outside Eugene, Oregon. We spent a couple of days before and a few days after, with my parents, uncle Joe, cousins Joey, Noah, Kevin (and his wife), and my grandmother, visiting some of the many beautiful sights Oregon has to offer. We visited a craft brewery, took in white water rafting (my first time ever), ran around the University of Oregon’s historic track, biked around Portland, hiked near the Oregon coast, and took in the beautiful Multnomah Falls. I was especially pleased to be a best man at my brother’s wedding (also a first – being in a wedding party).
Weddings! Speaking of weddings, I went to at least six I can remember: in addition to my brother Tony’s wedding in Oregon, my colleagues Travis and Mandi got married in Tallahassee, my colleague Don was married in Tampa, my friends Andrew and Meghan Fay were married in St. Petersburg, my friends Shawn and Jordyn (of the band Flagship Romance) were married in Keystone Heights, and my cousin Kelly was married in Miami. Other friends also got married (some without ceremonies), including Eric and Joleen, Tyler and Darcie, JY, and Ryan O’Connell. You just can’t make them all. I make too many of them. I’ve attended so many weddings now, I have vowed not to go to any more until I get married myself – unless I’m included in the wedding party, then I’ll make the exception.
Completed 8 years with The James Madison Institute (JMI): It’s hard to believe I have completed eight years with JMI, Florida’s premier free-market organization. We had another great year. We started two new centers, focused on property rights and educational options; we have two new staff members working from Orlando and Naples; we hired 9 college students to be JMI campus representatives on 9 distinct college campuses; we held our first statewide policy retreat – at the Disney Boardwalk Resort in Orlando; and we had many policy victories, most notably defeating the expansion of Medicaid in Florida and expanding educational savings accounts for special needs students. While I am responsible for overseeing the funds raised for the entirety of the organization and have incredible partners at JMI helping me, I also sometimes add my voice on policy issues. This year, I wrote a very notable article for the JMI Journal, “Florida Nonprofits Offer Alternatives to Incarceration,” which is another example of how JMI is increasingly adding its voice to criminal justice reform.
Started a Podcast: Through my job at JMI, my experience with Rock by the Sea, and other things I’m involved with, I constantly come across entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and artists who are the real innovators of our culture and society. Over the past two years I’ve also really become a fan of a lot of other podcasts. So, I thought I could start my own – and feature interviews with entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and artists. I’ve called it Agents of Innovation and in 2015, I recorded and released 12 episodes. I love getting feedback from family and friends on the interviews and I hope they serve to inspire a new audience. But as I constantly say, even if no one else was listening, I am learning so much through this new hobby. It has given me the opportunity to interact directly with some really neat people.
Other notables: In late September, I traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan with a few of my JMI colleagues to attend the Annual Meeting of the State Policy Network – where other free-market state-level organizations come together to share best practices and ideas. This was my eighth year in a row attending this conference – they move it from state to state each year. It’s also a great opportunity for me to reconnect with so many friends from around the country who are engaged in this same freedom movement in the states. In 2016, the SPN meeting will be held in Nashville. Can’t wait!
In November, I traveled to New Orleans for the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice Summit – a three-day conference totally focused on criminal justice reform issues. Notably, there were over 550 people there representing over 300 organizations. I also had the opportunity to attend this meeting with my buddy Christian Minor, who was there representing Bridges of America. We were able to have a little fun on Bourbon Street while also connecting with so many people from around the country engaged in justice reform.
Losses: We lost too many good people in 2015. But for me, the two who really standout are my friend and JMI board member Fred Leonhardt, who passed away in October. Fred served on JMI’s board of directors since 2009, almost the entire time I have been at JMI. He was definitely the most social and interactive and had become a close personal friend. My favorite moment with friend was when we attended a Miami Dolphins game together (in a skybox) in September 2014 – this was one of the rare occasions where I actually invited Fred! He was always so good to invite so many of us along to so many special occasions and events. He was a super connector and is reach in Florida was far and wide and will be missed for quite some time. I attended his funeral in late October and people from every walk of life were there. What really struck me were the ranges of ages. The other passing was Stacey Webb. I didn’t know Stacey as well as Fred, but she was very involved as a Rock by the Sea attendee and her 14-year old son Walker had performed at Rock by the Sea several times. She was also my neighbor in Southwood and was very involved in the Florida public policy process, with a special passion towards education reform. Both of these two passed too soon, but their lives were lived to the fullest and they touched so many people, while also keeping their families their priority. We can only hope to follow their example.
Favorite new band/musician: My favorite “new find” on the Rock Boat this year was Michael Franti & Spearhead. Although they’ve been around a little while, they are new to me. They had the best performance I was able to witness on the Rock Boat. They’ve got some grooving tunes that really seem to bring people together. Check them out!
Best Book I read: Holes in Time: The Autobiography of a Gangster by Frank Constantino. This book details the life of crime that a Miami gangster, Frank Constantino, lived in the 1950s and 1960s. He was caught and incarcerated. In jail, he had a Christian conversion and turned his life around. Once out of prison, he went back and ministered to other prisoners. He then started Christian Prison Ministries to carry out this work. And later, he started Bridges of America, to help former inmates “bridge” back to civil society after being released from prison. This book was recommended to me by my good friend Christian Minor, who works for Bridges of America – and it later inspired me to write my own article (mentioned above) about how Florida nonprofits, including Bridges of America, are providing alternatives to incarceration. The theme of Frank’s message: “Believe a Man Can Change,” has been nothing less than inspirational. You can download the book for free in PDF on the Bridges of America website.
Best new TV show: The Wire – at the end of 2015, I’m currently in the middle of season 3. I got into this show just in the past two months and already raced through the first two seasons. It dramatizes crime and justice in Baltimore – all five of the show’s seasons took place between 2002-2007. It takes a little while for me to finally get around to watching some shows, but it has been absolutely thrilling. And with my new passion for criminal justice reform this year, this show hits these issues from every angle – from the kids on the street, to the druglords, to the good cops and bad cops, to the politicians. Every element seems to be covered. And the characters are great.
My favorite new place: Oregon – this entire state is absolutely beautiful. From the green trees of the Willamette Valley, to the rocky coast, to the rivers, and the waterfalls. It has become one of my top five states – and it was the beautiful setting to my brother’s August 1 wedding. It was my third time visiting Oregon, but this time really allowed me to see so much more of it and experience it with my family.
Best Movie I saw: Going to skip this category for now. Nothing really sticks out. I watch a lot of things on Netflix and HBO GO.
Most Inspirational People in 2015: I had two very special people in my life have a huge impact on me this year: Michael Long and Christian Minor. I’ve actually known Michael for about 5 years now, but after he invited me to come on an experience sailing the Greek Islands with his nonprofit, Sail Future, I became really involved in helping his organization, which (as noted above) helps kids in the juvenile justice system use sailing as an alternative to incarceration. And I also become much closer friends with him (and met many new friends through him too). At about the same time that Michael had invited me to come sail with him, my friend Christian Minor had recommended that book (mentioned above) by Frank Constantino, Holes in Time: The Autobiography of a Gangster.
Throughout this past year, these two guys were constantly feeding me information on criminal justice reform, along with instilling in me the belief that even though people make mistakes, we should give them a second chance. The organizations they work for – Sail Future and Bridges of America – do just this every day. I had the opportunity to visit the Bridges of America corporate headquarters this year and also tour their Orlando Bridge facility. It was nothing less than inspiring seeing former inmates make use of this organization’s resources to help themselves transition back into civil society.
And this didn’t all come in a vacuum. Over the past few years, my organization, The James Madison Institute, has become increasingly involved in criminal justice reform as well. The work that Michael, Christian, and JMI have done inspired me to write a piece for the JMI Journal, “Florida Nonprofits Offer Alternatives to Incarceration.” In late October, Bridges of America held their 35th Anniversary dinner in Orlando and had a special printing of my article on every one of the 750 attendees’ seats – and it was placed inside the book by Frank Constantino, which they also gave out. I felt very moved that I could be a part of this movement in some way, through my writing, but it wouldn’t have happened without the great influences that Michael and Christian have played in my life this year. It’s really great when you can connect with friends like this on many levels. The crazy part is – these two guys haven’t even met each other in person. As of this writing, Mike is still sailing that boat back across the Atlantic Ocean, but I hope to connect these guys in person when Mike is back in January. Criminal justice reform in Florida will surely sail to new heights!
Another Year in the Books
It’s hard to put all the experiences of a year like 2015 into a quick review. The many challenges we faced, the hard work we did each day, the ups and downs, the fun times and the tough times – it can’t all be captured. But the year goes in the history books. I am thankful for another year of good health, of meeting great people, of learning new things, of getting the opportunity to travel around the world, to see the beauty it has to offer, and to remind myself to continue to thank God for all of these opportunities and people he has put in my life. Onward we sail…