James Piper Bond has always been possessed of a rare physical confidence, whether playing on a national championship lacrosse team in college, sailing across the South Pacific in a two-masted sailboat when he was in his 20s or climbing the 13,770-foot Grand Teton mountain last summer with his then-12-year-old son.
Bond isn't a daredevil. But over the years, he has developed a pretty accurate gauge of what he can get away with and what he can't, and he seeks out challenges pitched to the upper boundaries of his abilities.
That's the same approach that he takes to guiding the Living Classrooms Foundation. The nonprofit organization with a $15 million budget has become a nationwide model for using hands-on education and job training to help at-risk kids and young adults in Baltimore and Washington. The kids also are taught to protect the creatures that swim in Maryland's waterways and fly through its skies.
Perhaps because Bond is loath to acknowledge limits, since 1985, he and his team have achieved impressive results that have been recognized by a string of grants, honors and prizes. The most recent accolade came this summer, when Bond received Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year Award. The group will hold its major annual fundraiser, Maritime Magic, on Friday.
During a recent interview at the Waterfront Kitchen, one staff member recently offered a spontaneous tribute to Living Classrooms and to his boss.
"I'm a graduate of his programs, and without them I don't know what I would do," said Keith Turlington, who works as a waiter at the restaurant. "I never returned back to the streets. I can call him any time for a favor or talk to him if I'm having a problem with my girlfriend. It's just like a family."
Sure, Bond has made his share of mistakes. There are forces in the world that even he can't control, despite his most determined efforts to the contrary. But, he won't admit defeat until he's thrown everything he's got into the fray.
"We don't focus a lot on that stuff," the lanky 54-year-old says, smiling from behind his fisherman's beard. "But, if you're not learning from your failures, you're not going to improve as a person."
Your pedigree is about as Old Baltimore as it gets. You come from the same family for whom Bond Street is named, and the same Piper family that gave its name to a law firm and real estate company. You could have chosen pretty much any career path you desired. Why did you get involved with Living Classrooms?
I grew up in Baltimore. I have deep roots here. I went to [The University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill to college and then I spent four years going around the world. My parents weren't crazy about that plan at that time, so I had to do it on my own.
I bought a motorcycle and traveled through Europe and Africa. I worked on a ski patrol in Switzerland, taught diving in Corsica and went across Asia with a backpack, living on five bucks a day. I was the head lacrosse coach at Adelaide University in Australia. Then, I sailed across the South Pacific with four other people on a 40-foot ketch and worked for a time in Hawaii.
I'd travel for a while and then have to stop somewhere. I'd make some money and become part of the community. It taught me to be resourceful, and I saw a lot of poverty.
That was back before the Internet, so you'd call home once every three or four months and hope everybody was still alive. Eventually, I came back to Baltimore to see my family. My plan was to go back overseas and get back into the import-export business.
But I met these guys, these two teachers who were building this boat, the Lady Maryland. I started to volunteer and was hired to be the first education director. One thing led to another. I could just see the potential of this idea. We were working with inner-city kids from Day One, and there's nothing more gratifying.
Living Classrooms has evolved into a good-sized business. Do you have an MBA?
No. As you know, our motto is that we learn by doing. I went for one semester to an executive MBA program. Then, in 1996 my parents died in a car accident. I was the executor for the estate. I had to deal with all that, and I just didn't go back.
But I have great board members who give me their counsel. Freeman Hrabowski [the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County] has been one of my mentors.
And, it isn't about me. We have a whole team in place, including an amazing group of vice presidents. I'm just a conduit, a facilitator. If I got hit by a truck tomorrow, we'd be fine, though I'm not going anywhere any time soon.
Your foundation has won tons of awards and experienced a lot of success. It also has survived a major tragedy, after a water taxi capsized during a freak storm in 2004 and five passengers drowned. Was the accident your low point? [The Foundation, which no longer is in the water taxi business, later settled with survivors and victims' families for an undisclosed sum.]
That was an extremely challenging time. Our hearts still go out to the families and those involved. We had been trying to stay true to our core mission to help people, and I think the families understood that.
It was an act of nature. Sometimes, you just do the best you can.
Getting people to work toward the same goal takes real skill. How do you persuade a kid with an attitude problem to start showing up for work on time?
We very much go with the coaching model. We come at management much the way a coach would come at it, whether it's turning around a school, building a ship or operating an environmental center.
There's two simple things that we always come back to at Living Classrooms: You have to be able to work cohesively as a team and produce quality results. You can produce the most awesome results, but if you can't get along with your team, it's not going to work.
Or you could be the coolest person on earth and the greatest team member and everybody loves you, but if you can't get your job done, it ain't going to work either.
So, we boil it down to those two things in every aspect of what we do.
Tell us about something you tried that didn't work out and what you learned from it.
Back in the early '90s we had an after-school program. We were working with hundreds of kids and it was very successful. But, we only had one major funder and they decided to go in a different direction. We had to tell the children and the staff that we weren't going to be able to continue.
It was heart-breaking. But at the same time, that was the fiscally responsible thing to do. A couple of years later is when we got a grant to start our Baltimore Urban Gardening program, so we were able to begin another after-school effort that had a little different twist.
We have a saying around here, "No margin, no mission." You can have the greatest ideas and the greatest programs in the world, but if you can't fund them you're not going to go very far.
This is a business. We're here to help people in the inner city. But, if we aren't being prudent and responsible, in the long run we're not doing the kids any good.
If you go
Living Classrooms will present its major fundraiser, Maritime Magic, at 7 p.m. Friday at Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, 1417 Thames St. The event will feature entertainment by the MarchFourth Marching Band and the All Mighty Senators, plus food from more than 70 area restaurants. Tickets cost $110 in advance or $120 at the door. Call 410-685-0295 or go to livingclassrooms.org