Originally appeared in n magazine January 1998 Issue page 78 Story by Janina Birtolo Photos by Sara Timmons.
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Why would a young stockbroker from a privileged background settle in what was then a run-down section of town and devote all of his free time to working with at-risk youngsters? For John Gursoy, 34, it was a matter of doing the right thing. Growing up on Marco Island in a well-to-do family, Gursoy did not foresee what life would be like after leaving home. "When I graduated from Michigan State, I thought I was going to make $100,000 a year," he recalls. "[But] I was forced to move into a lifestyle I could afford, which meant a $70,000 neighborhood."
That neighborhood happened to be off of the East Trail—not too far from some vacant land where the homeless, drug users and youngsters looking for trouble hung out. Gursoys one luxury was his ski boat, which he would take out to the "Rockpit," the lake in the midst of this wilderness, for some water-skiing. "It was kind of a scary place," says Gursoy.
In 1988, Gursoy was asked to arrange a water-ski show for a North Naples development. With his wife and a few friends, he put together enough of a show to attract subsequent offers. That was the beginning of the Skimmers, a small group that practiced intermittently at the Rockpit.
In the summer of 1992, after practicing at the Rockpit one night, Gursoy returned to his truck to find the windows smashed. "I found out neighborhood kids did it," he recalls. "So I put the word out, I wouldn’t go to the police but, if they wanted to water-ski, they should come down to the lake. A couple of them took me up on the offer. Eventually, they brought more.
The incident hatched a plan in Gursoy’s mind. The acreage around the Rockpit was slated to be developed into a condominium community. "But if we could help these kids and put on an awesome water-ski show for two years, the community would get behind us and we might be able to stop the condos," Gursoy explains.
He met with and piqued the interest of representatives from Signature Communities, the developer, who said they would allow his group to continue skiing on the lake only if they cleaned up the area. Gursoy spread the news to the homeless camped in the region. Then he and some friends bulldozed the exotic vegetation and blocked the entrances. "Then we started patrolling every night," Gursoy says. "It was like Pavlov’s dog—we conditioned people not to trespass.
Working with youngsters from his neighborhood, which he calls "The Hood," Gursoy began putting on free weekly water-ski shows at the newly re-christened Lake Avalon. Eventually their efforts attracted the notice of Herbert and Peg Sugden, who donated $500,000 to help the Skimmers
purchase the lake property for a permanent home. Signature made the idea plausible by dropping its purchase price from $3 million to $2.1 million. The big break came when the county decided the 120 acres would be ideal for its first regional park and anted up the rest.
Today, the Skimmers are an integral part of Gursoy’s life. He works with the young members daily, and his home has become a hangout during off hours. Mercury Outboards and Yamaha have donated equipment, 21 adult volunteers give their evenings and weekends to work with some 49 kids, and the Sugdens have come through with an additional $200,000 to build an amphitheater.
Why such interest in a water-skiing program? As Gursoy sees it, he is not just teaching water-skiing; he is teaching life. "The standard we’ve drawn is traditional Christian family values," he says. "[And] little things like shaking people’s hands and looking them in the eye. They have to cut their hair, lose their earrings and tuck in their shirts. We want them to be like the Blue Angels, not Hell’s Angels."
The rewards are increased self-esteem and self-assuredness—and the knowledge that there is value in living industrious, admirable lives. To that end, the amphitheater is an architectural work of art. "These kids don’t have access to world-class amenities," says Gursoy. "That’s why we’re building a beautiful facility [for them] out there. It will be their country club. They are going to have their slice."