For Harlem and East side Bronx kids there is a place that offers kids the support, education, and skills to be "upward bound". The program offered in the Children’s Center on 140th and 5th Avenue is called Upward Bound. Add to that program Dr. Jessie stone’s 5 day whitewater kayaking camp for these 14-17 year olds and you have something quite special for these kids. The kids are accepted in the program if their parents are not college graduates and their household income is below a set level. There was 14 kids who came for the camp. Each one had their own reason for signing up for five intense days of kayaking. For three of the girls who were in it last year, it was to have another fun week and to put "whitewater kayaker" on their resume’. Most of the new kids heard how fun the camp was last year and wanted to take part. One of the girls, Elize’, had a phobia of water and wanted to overcome it.
The camp was organized by Jessie Stone, and sponsored by Credit Suisse/First Boston. Returning for another year of teaching was Margie and Hayden, instructors out of Sundance in Oregon, and a married couple of 14 years. I flew directly from Salt Lake City from the trade show into Laguardia Airport for my second year with the program. Joining us this year were two film makers from California, Howard and Bob. These guys came out by request from Jessie, who will make an entire film on the camp on spec. They worked like crazy to get the shots, interviews, and background to make a great piece. The Boys and Girls Harbor provided the transportation and a chaperone, Rosanna, to get the kids around.
For me the goal was to go with the Upward Bound concept whenever possible. The way I see it, these kids have grown up so far in a very specialized environment, with very specific set of knowledge and plenty of ignorance that comes from lack of experiences outside of that environment. Growing up in Harlem is not like growing up in the outdoors. What I hoped to impress upon the kids is that "upward bound" is not necessarily about income, possessions, careers, location of residence, or any other specific measurements. Instead, upward bound is about having knowledge about what is available in all parts of the world, and deciding how they want to live their lives by committing their time and energy to something that they deem worthy. To many people run the course of their lives without knowing that there is nothing they have to do. It rarely occurs to them that they had so many options along the way to change their environment, situations, and lot in life until they are too old, tired, or beaten down to try.
These kids are young, intelligent, energetic, and being well prepped to make a positive difference in the world. But they still are full of prejudices and very unique ideas that come from their upbringing and inner city living. For example, one of the kids was terrified of Butterflies. To quote her exactly, "Butterflies are ugly and nasty, I hate them." Now to somebody who grew up in the outdoors, bugs are a normal part of everyday life. To a kid who grew up in Harlem, bugs are usually only roaches, ants, or flies. So, it is logical that insects are seen as part of a dirty environment. That is obviously a drop in the bucket when it comes to the topics that the kids have a very specialized perspective on. So, five days is a short time to expand horizons, however, it is plenty of time to get them wanting to expand their horizons. What better way than through exposing them to whitewater kayaking.
The kids we had this year were: Ashley, Reggie, Latoya, Ameris, Jackie, Sade’, Rueben, Christopher, Michael, Elize’, and EJ (Eric Jones), with Rosanna as the chaperone.
The camp started off at the Boy and Girls Center in NYC on the six floor in their pool. The kids only had a short amount of time in the pool due to scheduling conflicts the first day and most were still scared of being in the kayak in the pool by the second day. I arrived on the second day after the NY blackout prevented me from getting a plane in. We started off with wet exits, some bracing, and rolling. Elise’ who admitted having a phobia of kayaking, took a little work to get her to tip over with no skirt on. It took about 30 minutes until she was ready for her first wet exit. We had a few kids rolling that morning, but mostly worked the comfort level and bracing.
That afternoon, we met up with Eric Stiller, owner of Manhattan Kayak Company. They do sea kayaking lessons and tours from Pier 63 on the Hudson. It is a cool spot. There is a bar, an old tug boat turned into a party boat with dance floors, and docks for launching kayaks. The place is pretty intimidating for beginners with big barges, ferry boats, tugboats, offshore racers, etc. all creating big waves that make the docks bounce up and down, and all around. The tide creates a fast current in either direction as well. Since the pool is so small, we bring the kids there to experience open water paddling and learn their strokes and finish learning their rolls. We spent a day and a half at Pier 63. By the end of Wednesday, the kids were getting quite good at paddling. Most could roll, and they were looking forward to the beach. The Hudson is not your typical swimming hole. Most of the kids were quite skeptical about touching the water and all had stories about dead bodies washing up and sewage, etc. The reality is that the water is not that dirty. Still, we had several kids that wouldn’t let the water touch their faces. Elize’ finally got in the water after deciding that she was not going to, and started to get really good at paddling her boat around. After the paddling the kids would pile into a bus and head back to the "Harbor" and then on home. Jessie took the support crew out to dinner in the "Meat packing district" at a sweet little restaurant. We had great conversation and everybody seemed to really enjoy the who experience.
On Thursday we headed for Gilgo Beach, not far from Fire Island on Long Island. For many of the kids, who live less than 10 miles from the ocean, this would be their first time at a beach. Jessie decided to keep them in the estuary for the first couple of hours so we could finish off their rolls and make sure that they would be ready for their first river run on Friday. Once we hit the beach it would be play time. It was a good call and we make great progress on strokes and concepts as well as their rolls. When we went to the beach we goofed off for a couple of hours before putting anybody in the boats. It was the first time for body surfing, and for many just being on the coast. EJ and Latoya weren’t particularly impressed with the idea of getting pummeled by the waves and opted to stay in the shallow water. Michael, who was the least skilled swimmer, ended up staying in the entire time and learned to body surf. For everybody it was a fun time. Finally, we broke the kayaks out and had Rueben, Michael, and Reggie in and surfing waves on their own. For the most part they were in control. There was the token power flip and swim as well. We wrapped it up around 5pm and the kids had a big drive back to the Harbor, while the crew planned on a cookout at Jessie’s house in Purchase, NY. On a tangent, let me tell you about Jessie and her parents house. First off, Jessie is a one in a million person in many ways. Whether it be her incredible drive, or her life’s choices, or her integrity, she is on the high road for sure. She happens to be the daughter of a very successful art dealer in NYC, Alan Stone. Well, Alan Stone’s most impressive art is probably at his house. There aren’t words to describe that house. I can best sum it up by saying that in the "great room" there are two baby grand piano’s, but you can’t find them among the statues and the art work. The art varies from a large number of African Tribal statues, to shrunken heads, heads that haven’t been shrunken, giant feet and hammers, to incredible paintings, disturbing paintings, and an occasional cheerful painting. If you were to take all of the haunted houses in the world and move everything out of them and into one big house, Jessie’s house would still be scarier. It just shows that the Stone’s don’t operate by the same set of decorating rules as the rest of the world, so bravo to them. I always love those who do things their own way! Sorry, back to the camp.
On Friday we went from NY to CT to the Farmington River in Tarrifville. This is a river that has been the site of slalom races since the 70’s and more recently some freestyle events. I competed in my first slalom national championships there in 1984. It is several miles of class two, with two class three rapids on it. Today was graduation day. We would be putting in and running a river. The kids were more excited than scared. The closed in feeling compared to the beach or the Hudson seemed comforting to them. The insects were not, however.
On this day we had lots of helpers, Dave from CT, Dave from NJ, Bob from New Hampshire, and Emily and Dane. So we had 8 instructors and only 10 kids. Unfortunately, Ashley had to baby sit her brother and sister while her parents went to work. The eddy turns and ferries went well. Elize’ who was terrified was quickly becoming the best at getting around in her boat. We got to the biggest rapid and I had Emily lead on a rapid she had never seen. She picked the line perfectly and did a great job leading the group. It wasn’t until we got to the very last rapid that the Christopher flipped in the big hole and swam in my group. Once we got the kids into that last eddy and told them that they made it, they were incredibly psyched. Rueben wanted to surf the retentive rodeo hole and did it successfully along with several combat rolls. The rest of the kids jumped in and swam the rapid over and over again. This day was a complete success for everybody.
Margie handed out their graduation certificates, made by her. The bus loaded up and off to the Harbor the kids went, but not without a lots of hugs and handshakes by all.
Next time you see Jessie, let her know what a good job she is doing!
See you on the river,