Jack Eckerd's Remedy For America's Troubled Youth
By: Martha L. Chamberlain
Director, Marketing and Client Relations
Eckerd Youth Alternatives, Inc.
When Jack Eckerd died in 2004 at the age of 91, hundreds of newspapers nationwide covered his death as the passing of a philanthropist whose life mission was helping at-risk and troubled kids. Two decades ago, the media would have identified him as a "drug store magnate."
The accolades for his work with at-risk and troubled youth would have surprised Jack. Several years prior to his death, he joked that virtually every news article ever written about him included the term "drugstore magnate" - despite dedicating the second half of his life to helping children and families.
Born in Wilmington, DE in 1913, Jack revolutionized the drugstore industry in 1952 by introducing the concept of self-service to three failing Florida drugstores. He soon transformed those three floundering stores into one of the nation's largest drugstore chains. At its peak, sales hit $5 billion annually.
In 1957, he married Ruth Binnicker Swann just six weeks after their first date. It was the second marriage for both. Together, they brought five children into the marriage and produced another two in a blended "yours, mine and ours" family. The Eckerd's happiness and love for their own children, combined with a desire to share their good fortune with others, is what first sparked their interest in helping at-risk youth.
When questioned about why he devoted himself to helping children, Jack would say that he believed society would generate the biggest return on investment by helping troubled and at-risk children turn their lives around - "a lifetime of returns" for each child and family who was helped. Those closest to him however, would say that it was because he had a special place in his heart for children - especially society's most vulnerable children.
Over the years, when asked what was most important to him, Jack would always say "the kids." Despite his accomplishments in many different arenas, his love of helping at-risk and troubled children remained his passion.
One Article Changes His Life And Thousands of Kids' Lives
After reading about the Dallas Salesmanship Club's outdoor program for troubled youth in Texas in the 1960's, its effective and holistic approach for helping troubled youth captivated Jack's focus and passion to help kids.
When Jack and Ruth opened their first outdoor therapy program in Brooksville, FL in 1968, some doubted it would work. After all, the ideas embodied in the approach were still unusual at the time. The Eckerd Youth Alternatives' (EYA) outdoor therapeutic program took children out of society in order for them to learn how to live within society's boundaries. Instead of the prevailing approach of restricting youth to hospitals or detention centers, the EYA program gave them freedom to experience personal growth through high-interest, therapeutic recreational activities. As a remedy to anger and hostility, the Eckerd approach advocated unconditional regard, support and nurturing. And it worked.
A primary difference between EYA's outdoor therapeutic programs and many that have emerged more recently is its internal approach to behavior management. The Eckerd model does not use points, levels, demerits or other externally based systems to promote behavioral changes. The Eckerds believed that such reward/punishment systems do little to promote long-lasting changes in troubled youth because life does not always provide such guides for good decisions. EYA programs teach kids to actually think differently, to problem solve by themselves, with groups, and how to internalize good decision-making to guide them for the rest of their lives.
By 1978, Jack had opened three other outdoor therapeutic programs in Florida. Always a hands-on manager and detail man, he and his wife Ruth frequently visited the programs to spend time with the children and participate in cookouts. In addition, each year hundreds of children and youth counselors were invited to the Eckerd's home to celebrate Christmas with them.
Dedicated to Public Service
Meanwhile in the 1970s, Jack became interested in public service, believing Florida could benefit from applying sound business principles to running state government. He ran unsuccessfully for Florida's governorship and for a Florida senate seat. Against his advisors' wishes, he steadfastly refused to capitalize on photo and other publicity opportunities with the children in his outdoor therapeutic programs during the campaigns, insisting the children's needs and privacy always came first.
Ironically, Jack's losses in elective politics were directly related to his tremendous successes in public service. Jack eventually did become actively involved in politics and service in both state and national government, receiving three appointments by Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Under President Ford, he served as director of the U.S. General Services Administration. And in Florida, he led two successful campaigns against casino gambling and chaired a government efficiency committee that saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Extending EYA's Reach to Help More Kids
At the same time, in true Eckerd fashion, Jack transformed EYA into one of the nation's leading youth services organizations.
The Eckerd model for residential treatment gained the attention of government agencies and leaders throughout the southeastern and northeastern United States. And Jack was approached to partner with several states in serving youth in state care, extending the program's reach beyond families and professionals to meet the broader needs of youth served by public agencies.
In 1982, Jack was asked to pioneer the privatization of Florida's juvenile justice programs by taking his nurturing approach and applying it successfully to youth the state considered high risk. That program, the Eckerd Youth Development Center, still ranks in the top one percent in the country by the American Correctional Association.
But that was not enough. In 1993 - at age 80 - he saw a need to keep young at-risk children from becoming troubled teens, and launched private early intervention programs in elementary schools throughout Florida. Today, EYA offers 40 programs for at-risk and troubled youth in eight states.
EYA's largest program area continues to be helping troubled teens through outdoor therapeutic programs. And since 2000, EYA has further developed its core mission of helping troubled teens and their families. Two outdoor therapeutic programs, Eckerd Youth Alternatives' E-How-Kee in Brooksville, FL, and Eckerd Youth Alternatives' E-Sun-Alee in Deer Lodge, TN., are now dedicated to serving adolescents privately referred by their families or professionals working with the family. Other EYA outdoor therapeutic programs primarily serve youth referred through public agencies, but can accommodate private referrals by request.
The Legacy of Jack Eckerd
Jack Eckerd left a monumental legacy when he passed away on May 19, 2004 at the age of 91. More than 69,000 youth have been helped through EYA, and countless families have credited EYA for reuniting them with their once-troubled teen, and even for saving their children's lives.
At Jack's memorial service, former Florida Governor Reuben Askew called him "a rare and remarkable man…who didn't want his philanthropy to be known, although some of it is known."
The headline for the St. Petersburg Times article announcing his death stated that Jack was "A Giant Of Generosity", while the Tampa Tribune headline noted "He Was A Rare And Reputable Man." Virtually every media story that was written about Jack after he died celebrated his passion for helping children nationwide.
Today, the kids are still what are most important at Eckerd Youth Alternatives, and Eckerd family members, including Ruth, continue to guide EYA as members of the Board of Directors. More than 1,500 employees are dedicated to his personal vision of improving the future, one child at a time.
Just as important, every decision at Eckerd Youth Alternatives is guided by Jack's over-riding mandate that "the kids should always come first."
Of that legacy, Jack would be most proud.
As a twenty-two year veteran of the Eckerd Drug Store chain, with an office on the other side of Mr. Eckerd’s office wall, I can personally vouch for his high and demanding standards. These were balanced by his generosity to his deserving employees and desire to have his employees share in the ownership of the company that bore his name. I will always remember his philosophy regarding his company: “Work hard and forget it. Work poorly and watch out.” I worked for a visionary and a giant of a man that I’m sad to say left the retail business to conquer other, probably more important, worlds. The Jack Eckerd Corporation was never the same after he left and it is very sad to see that his name has disappeared from thousands of Drug Stores throughout America. I am happy to say that after I decided to leave the Eckerd Corporation, I was able to produce two annual reports for the Eckerd family Youth Alternatives.
As a gift, I painted an oil portrait of his beloved “Panacea" a 52 ft Yawl that Jack Eckerd unexpectedly discovered was so speedy that he became involved in competitive sailing. Not surprising, he became very successful in the SORC Sailing Circuit. Although I cautioned him that my rather thick usage of oil paint would take some time to dry, he took it from me, loaded it into the back of his Porsche Carr era and rushed home that same day.
I will always be grateful to this great man.
Robert N Becker