time well spent
Rocking the Boat is getting ready to bid a fond farewell to 16 seniors, all with plans in place to attend college in the fall. Distinguishing themselves among this impressive group are eight who have participated in the Boatbuilding or On-Water Program since they were freshmen. Their Program Directors and Social Workers are thrilled about their academic achievements, including successfully graduating from high school—something that two out of three Hunts Point teens do not do—and earning scholarships to attend such schools as Muhlenberg College, Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton, Lehman College, Fordham University, and City College.
Rocking the Boat prides itself on creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere, building a strong sense of community among the student body, but what specifically kept these kids coming back semester after semester, year after year? "The sense of accomplishment that students feel at the end of Rocking the Boat's program builds self-esteem, confidence, hope, and most importantly, a future," according to Judithann Thayer, Education Counselor at the Hunts Point Alliance for Children (HPAC), a local nonprofit that regularly refers students, including five of the eight who have been with Rocking the Boat for a full four years. HPAC is an ideal partner to help implement Rocking the Boat's current strategy of engaging students throughout their high school careers because it works closely with all of the local middle schools: St. Ignatius, M.S. 424, and Hyde Leadership Charter School. Based on long histories of supporting these students, HPAC knows who will be a good fit for Rocking the Boat's unique program, as well as who will benefit most from the social, emotional, technical, and academic support services provided, making them likely to stay on for an extended period.
The students themselves give a slightly different answer to the question about why they stuck with the program for so long. "Rocking the Boat is always teaching me something new," quietly states Rigoberto Garcia, who attended St. Ignatius then All Hallows High School and is thinking about becoming a social worker. Between getting to do something as unusual as rowing out to the middle of the Bronx River to test water samples and then have concrete results to show for his work, he was hooked. "This experience has made me feel capable, and given me a sense of responsibility to my work and to myself," which is the best possible springboard Rigo could have for starting at Manhattanville College this fall.
Steven Portillo, Rigo's classmate at All Hallows, compares the rush he feels when he finishes a boat—he has built six from scratch over the past four years and repaired many more—to what he imagines it would be "like seeing your newborn baby for the first time." It is not exactly an analogy one might expect to hear from an 18-year old boy. But given the many months spent in the shop and the multiple steps that go into building a boat, all the while being able to envision how amazing the final result will be, the simile couldn't be more apt. Steven is currently on the Job Skills team constructing a 25-foot steamboat in partnership with Stevens Institute of Technology. He admits that the project is very different from the Whitehalls and semi-dories he worked on as a student—the project is being completed over the course of a full year, rather than 13-weeks—but in a good way. "I can adapt," he says with a smile. Starting in August, he will attend Fordham University tuition-free through the New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program.
Rocking the Boat is an exciting place to be all year round, but summer is undoubtedly the most eventful season. With the unofficial launch of summer on Memorial Day Weekend, for example, came the start of an expanded Community Rowing Program. Community members and visitors are now able to come down to Hunts Point Riverside Park on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons and sign up for a boat ride on one of Rocking the Boat's student-built wooden Whitehalls and tour the beautiful Bronx River. Con Ed's Everything Matters initiative is the program's lead sponsor, with additional support provided by Partnerships for Parks and the Leon Lowenstein Foundation.
Throughout July, Rocking the Boat will be piloting an exciting new program for local middle schoolers: sailing camp! The organization's first class of Sailing Apprentices have spent all spring developing both their sailing and teaching skills in preparation for welcoming 40 middle school students from Hunts Point schools St. Ignatius and Hyde Leadership Charter School, located just up the hill. Sailing Camp will be based on the East River at Clason Point Park just outside the mouth of the Bronx River, and a short boat ride from Rocking the Boat. By adding this program to the mix with Bronx River Camp, which brings the same age group out onto the water to row and do environmental science, Rocking the Boat is dramatically expanding its pool of potential recruits for the Youth Development Program. The two camp programs are being supported by the Leon Lowenstein Foundation, the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation, and 11th Hour Racing.
Also starting this July and extending through the first half of the fall semester, Environmental Apprentices will be creating an experimental seaweed farm at the mouth of the Bronx River. The native algae, Gracilaria tikvahiae, acts as a highly efficient filter with the capacity to naturally extract 33 kg/hectare per month of nitrogen. Translation: since the Bronx River is so polluted with nitrogen (a primary component of human sewage), especially when heavy rainfalls overwhelm the sewer system, Gracilaria function at a rate nearly seven times greater than other sites conducting this same research. In short, Gracilaria loves it here! Seaweed scientists at the University of Connecticut are supervising the work, which involves regularly monitoring the seaweed's growth, cutting it back, weighing it both wet and dry, and then sending the samples off to be analyzed to trace how much of the seaweed's nitrogen content is a result of human sewage. The project's lead sponsor is Toyota TogetherGreen, with additional generous support from Entergy and Environmental Resources Management.