Marina del Rey’s the Challenges Foundation suspends operations as organizers look for a new place to dock

By Pat Reynolds

The Emerald takes a crew of military veterans on a voyage into Santa Monica Bay. The Challenges Foundation is unable to resume its therapy efforts until they can find a new place to dock the vintage sailboat. Photo by Pat Reynolds

The Emerald takes a crew of military veterans on a voyage into Santa Monica Bay. The Challenges Foundation is unable to resume its therapy efforts until they can find a new place to dock the vintage sailboat.
Photo by Pat Reynolds

It is a powerful thing to be out on the open water with men who have returned from war broken by its horrors.

Marina del Rey’s nonprofit Challenges Foundation provides alternative post-traumatic stress disorder therapy in the form of a 1924 wooden sailboat called Emerald. Like the men and women the organization serves, the Emerald is a work in progress — a strong, hard-traveled fighter imbued with both beautiful and tragic experiences.

The Emerald was once left for dead at the bottom of King Harbor in Redondo Beach and has been inches away from abandonment and destruction more than a few times in its 91 years, but it sails on. That makes the Emerald perfect for its current mission. The non-profit, all-volunteer Challenges Foundation has carried crews of wounded, blind and formerly homeless military veterans invited through the West L.A. and Long Beach V.A. hospitals.

Recently I was invited aboard the stoic 55-foot yawl to take part in a day sail organized for a group of vets from the West L.A. V.A.’s transitional housing program. I arrived at the docks outside the Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club and soon met the nine former soldiers. They were mostly a quiet bunch, maybe even detached in this setting. One older man with a thick beard insisted he not be photographed or touched, while some of the others jumped on the tasks at hand — relishing the personal effort and teamwork that sailing an old boat involves.

As we sailed into the Santa Monica Bay in a pleasant 12-knot breeze, I sat on the coach-roof and had a conversation with Blade, an ex-Marine in his 30s. As a combat medic, he witnessed the uncensored realities of war. Blade told me it was programs like this one and Saddles for Soldiers (therapy involving horses) that’s helped him with his PTSD more than anything else.

Blade isn’t alone — there’s a long line of combat vets who praise the program, crediting it with helping them acclimate back into society and assisting them in the long road to normalcy. One participant who did not wish to be named said after a trip: “This is the first opportunity that I’ve had since I’ve gotten out of the service that I’ve actually enjoyed being out and being around other people.”

The Challenges Foundation, however, is facing a life-and-death struggle of its own.

Though there is no shortage of people to serve — nearly 400 men and women from a variety of organizations sailed the Emerald last year — the foundation is having trouble affording a slip for the boat and paying the costs associated with a charity. The Emerald previously occupied a rent-free L.A. County-owned slip in Marina del Rey but was evicted, its founders say. Now the Emerald is homeless.

David Scheinfarb, a local L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. deputy and himself a military veteran, runs the Challenges Foundation with the unwavering support of his wife Inge. The couple says they have given a substantial amount of their time and money to the project — an effort they believe is helping people — but jeopardy looms large for the nonprofit as the summer boating season arrives.

“We’re bouncing around trying to figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to make this program work,” David Scheinfarb said.

About two weeks ago, David Scheinfarb was forced to anchor the historic vessel alongside some derelict boats past the Marina del Rey break wall, in the open ocean. All of the programs are suspended while they figure out how to keep the foundation from sinking — literally and figuratively. In a recent big sea, the Emerald broke free from her anchor and had to be rescued 10 feet from the surf line. Her anchor and rode were jettisoned during the rescue and now the boat is worse off than before, as an anchor is something of a nautical limb.

“If we had a dock-space, the need for money wouldn’t be so great,” said Inge, who crunches the numbers for the organization. “Ideally what would be good is if Beaches and Harbors allowed us to come back to [one of their] docks on a temporary basis. Then we could work on finding a permanent dock space.”

The Scheinfarbs hope county officials can reserve a small place for the Challenges Foundation in their plans for redevelopment of Marina del Rey harbor.

“For the long range we’d love to see the county allocate a dedicated dock for nonprofits,” Inge Scheinfarb said. “Have some type of check-in service where there are requirements, so it’s not used as a storage area.”

The trip I took with the veterans was a moving experience. To be with men who have come out broken on the other side of violent combat and watch as others try and help, is a powerful thing to see. Sailing is a particularly effective vehicle for this brand of therapy. It allows those who need peace to sit and be calm but it also is perfect for those who need to stay busy, focus on a job and connect with others.

“We take out everyone for free,” Inge Scheinfarb said. “Nobody running the organization is getting anything out of this except a sense of satisfaction that we’re doing the right
thing.”