By Eric Jackson
2017 Dr. Jessie Stone Kid’s Camp
Every year Jessie Stone brings whitewater kayaking to youth that could use some TLC in their lives, as well as something that they would not otherwise get exposed to. This year we were lucky to have 10 kids from the Graham Windham School in NYC ages 12-17. These kids attend this school because there is some reason they can’t live at home, for their own sake, a challenge that no child wants to experience. However, this school, the teachers, and people like Jessie, help keep the kids moving in a positive direction, and they are really special people to get to know.
Each year we start by meeting the kids in the main building on campus and the initial meeting is always awkward for the kids as there is a lack of trust on the front end that comes out as indifference in the kids. Each one is different and special in their own way, of course, but generally it is a slow start. This year we had two kids walk out on us in the first 5 minutes. Chuck and Augustina. Chuck never came back, but he started watching us in the pool and regretted his decision. Augustina did come back and while she was a fireball, she was an amazing kid ready for action, more action, and nothing but action (meaning, forget paying attention for any instruction, she would just go for it).
The rest of the kids, and two teachers, Martin and Michelle, were quite interesting to get to know. Zach, the Nick Name for the 6’2” 14 year old girl, with the biggest smile on the planet was full of hugs, high fives, but was also on the verge of tears much of the time due to fear of the river. Jasia, age 15, was calm, cool, and collected, but good for a quip or two, and you could not get her out of the water. JJ, the 12 year old 5’9” girl, that looks like 17, paddled with power and a ferocity that was impressive, while acting much older than she was. Veronica was all about the camera and, consequently, managed to get in much of the GoPro footage I took and she borrowed my camera for some cool shots. Martin played the piano and sings a lot, age 27, and was quite the entertainer to have on board (teacher), while Michelle , the other Teacher, seemed to be quite the natural at kayaking and really needs to get her own boat soon! Shania, almost didn’t get going on day 1 due to just having her hair done, but ended up going for it and deciding that she no longer cared about that and just wanted to paddle, swim, and enjoy the antics. Tanya, the 17 year old, was all big smiles and going for it, and then would be withdrawn, quiet, and still. It took me a few days to realize she was just scared. She was one of those who didn’t know how to swim, but was impossible to get out of the river on the last day swimming the rapids over and over again.
Terea, our only student boy, age 16, is a dedicated video game player, and needed to learn to swim. We also had Stephanie and Myles, who are adults living in NYC with a blog called “The Social NY”. I invited them to both cover the camp, but to also learn along side the kids. Stephanie told me she couldn’t swim when I met her at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake . I figured somebody like her could write a more effective piece as she had to go through the mental challenges of her fear of water. Eli Reichman, a photographer from NY, got recruited by Jessie, and if you don’t know what that means, it means get ready to work hard! Luckily, Eli has helped Jessie in Uganda already and therefore knew what he was getting into, such as driving the van all around NYC, taking lots of photos, and generally loading boats, unloading, etc. etc.. Good man Eli!
OK, so the camp went something like this. After meeting the kids, breaking the ice and getting to the pool (2 hour ordeal as trust is something that has been broken with them for one reason or another in their lives ), we unloaded the boat from my Titan and the van and loaded them in the pool at the school. When I asked who needed to learn to swim we had Stephanie, Tanya, Terea, and Zach had no experience and most of those who said they did, really struggled to swim across the pool, with a few exceptions, like Veronica, Augustina, and Martin and Michelle. It took some time to teach everyone to swim, but well worth the effort and they all put in the effort. We did get a little kayak time on day 1 but Day 2 was our first real kayak effort.
Day 2, We started to really get to know the kids, and their guards were dropping down. We were joking around, and they were looking us in the eye and smiling for the first time. Hugs and high fives, combined with scared kids not wanting to flip over, wet exit, etc. etc.. and some fast curriculum to get them ready for whitewater in three days was not easy for anyone.
Day 3, We had our full team and it was a challenge paddling against the tide up the Hudson as this was the first time we covered any distance and had to paddle straight. Zach and Tanya struggled to make it, while Augustina flipped over 7 times (on purpose we believe). Some of the kids were getting good fast and going fast. We got to a nice little beach on the river, and managed some graffiti in the sand, found shells and other interesting natural things. I also taught a number of the kids to whistle using an acorn shell. Jessie was busy teaching strokes and other critical skills.
Day 4- Housatonic River: We lost one of the nicest boys, Terea, and Augustina. They were arguing on the bus ride home and weren’t able to join the next day. I was super bummed as they missed the best part of the week, the whitewater! It was a breakthrough day for many, including Stephanie, who I had to break out my more authoritative and demanding EJ to get her to run her first rapid and then swim it as well. She actually managed to accidentally float out of the eddy and ran the rapid by accident, but did great with it and it changed her perspective. She cried two times, but then after swimming the rapids, suddenly she started a rapid climb in confidence and enjoyment. She learned to swim and kayak the same day and she managed to run two whitewater rivers without ever tipping over!
Day 5: Farmington River: We lost Zach and Jasia on Friday, not sure why. I was bummed as they were super fun and it would have been a great experience for them. however, the harder whitewater on this run, was rewarded with more volunteers in Andy, Jeff, Cate, Paula, Dave, and Sam. We had about a 2-1 student teacher ratio and it was awesome! We managed some surfing, rapid running, and swimming, including Myles who swam and pinned his boat, but was so excited to have done it. Stephanie was beside herself, as was Veronica, Martin, Michelle, JJ, Tanya, etc.. We managed to get everyone down the river with only two flips. At the end, the instructors did some surfing in the play hole, and then we swam around with the kids in the rapids. Tanya, who learned to swim on Monday, couldn’t get herself to get out of the water on Friday. I am sure both kayaking and swimming are her new favorite things to do!
The kids really did dig deep and work hard this week. We all became good friends and everyone opened up with no more reservations. If nothing else, this week was a distraction from their challenges at home that has them at the Graham Windham School in the first place. I hope they all feel more confident, stronger, and are happy to have been a part of Jessie’s camp!
The overall feel of the camp is that of a typical classroom in the beginning, but by day 2 it starts to morph into a big family outing and by the end everyone is sad to see it end. I remember kids from years past and always wonder how they are doing today. there have been a few times when Jessie got enough funding for this camp to take the kids on road trips; once to Oregon and once to Uganda to help the less fortunate. Awesome. Anyone who wants to help Jessie out with her camp as a volunteer or through funding should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a short video I edited: