Rocking The Boat

New York / Nov. 26, 2012 / by The Team

Very few people would be able to say they know how to build a boat using traditional methods but young adults in the Bronx, New York, are learning the life skills and confidence they need to succeed in life by doing just that. 

At Rocking The Boat, a nonprofit situated in Hunts Point, the saying goes, “We use boats to build kids.” 

While this might seem like an unusual idea, Adam Green, Executive Director, explains that, “Rocking The Boat is a youth and community development organization. We use these odd mediums of traditional wooden boat building, environmental science, and sailing education to help young people develop into empowered and responsible adults.”

The idea for the nonprofit came to Green when he was volunteering in an East Harlem school at the age of 22 before graduating from college. The teacher he was working with wanted to build a boat and asked Green if he would be interested in trying to do so. 

“It felt like a cool idea,” explains Green, “so he gave me some wood and set up plans and a couple of kids to work with and after about 8 months, we built a little 8ft dinghy and we floated it in the pool in the basement of the school.”

It was the children’s reaction to the project, as well as his own, that led him to think that boat building would provide the perfect vehicle, both literally and metaphorically, to helping young adults in challenging communities. 

“It was just the most exciting thing for the kids but for me too,” continues Green, “and it was just this feeling that kids who are actually learning things that really mattered, applying them immediately and feeling the impact of the success they were having and that just seemed like the right way to do it.”

Rocking The Boat focuses on all aspects around boats, from the building of the boat itself and rowing to environmental science about the water ways on which they travel. Programmatically, this means they have two tracks which students can follow: on-water, which includes the environmental science and research, and boat building. 

“All of the science we do is water-based,” says Green. “It uses the boats that we build to go out on, in our case, the Bronx River, and do a whole range of scientific work and restoration, research projects.”

The question on most people’s minds is, ‘Why boats?’ Green explains that, “We are building something real that actually works, that's beautiful, but will literally take you somewhere that you wouldn't be able to get otherwise and in our case, it's the water ways around New York City.”

He goes on to say that, “For the kids we work with, they've never left their neighborhoods before and to be able to create something that you can actually get on and go off to distant places is pretty huge.” 

Stephanie Cabral, a program assistant explains that, “A lot of these students ... have never experienced the Bronx River before. They’ve probably walked by it but probably never really experienced it first hand and they actually get to go out there and explore and learn so many things while they’re out there.”

All the work, whether it’s done by students or staff, on or off water, is connected through the programs. “We build boats, we use them to play and learn about boating, we then use those boats to do all the scientific work ... we beat the boats up, they come back in the shop, we repair the boats, we send them back out again.”

Understandably, the kids become attached to the boats they have been working on for weeks, if not months. Green says that, “That’s why ... our student youth development programs build boats that we keep and why it's only the more advanced job skill apprentices who build boats that go out into the world. It's the whole idea of first, you need to create something that's yours and you need to own it and love it, name it.” 

Since starting, Rocking The Boat has built approximately 37 boats, most of which remain at the RTB facilities to be used by other students. “We still have the majority of them, probably about 22 or so, 25 maybe,” says Green. “The others are in different historic sites that we built them for.”

Rocking The Boat has several different programs, each for different levels of involvement, age, and part of society.

The first and most open is the community rowing programs that run “every Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day” - for anybody in the community, “Kids, adults, elderly folks - we've lifted folks out of wheelchairs to put them in boats” and have even used Braille on oars and the rest of the boat to help them. 

These community rowing programs are run by the program assistants who are “the top-level former students who work for us, college-age”. The program is nothing if not a success and this past summer, there were 1,400 people who passed through it. 

“We then do group programs with school groups during the school day and some adult groups,” says Green. These are split between the boat building and on-water group programs, the latter of which has had around 1,500 participants this year.

Each school group will often return for multiple sessions at Rocking The Boat. “It's a way to impact kids' learning in the context of the school, getting them out of the classrooms,” says Green. 

Then come the main three parts of the programs at Rocking The Boat, “our much more intensive long-term engagement programs, which is really the essence of what we do.”

For the younger students, there is the youth development program where “9th and 10th grade kids either work in the shop building boats or out on the water doing environmental science and sailing education.”

Next, there is the jobs skills program for Juniors and Seniors. In this part, the students are paid to do their work. It’s “much more complex work that has external impact,” explains Green. 

This can include building boats on commission from museums across the country or “doing a whole range of large-scale environmental science projects for outside scientific organizations that we're paid to perform in the environmental job skills program.”

The highest level a student can reach is as a program assistant. “Once kids graduate high school and go to college, if they're local, they can come back to work for us as program assistants,” says Green.

A staff of 14 program assistants currently works at Rocking The Boat, and their jobs are to “support both the community rowing program, the on-water group programs, and both the boat-building and the on-water youth development programs.” 

As part of their position as program assistants, they continue to be supported by Rocking the Boat and “receive services from our alumni social worker who also offers services to the larger body of alumni,” says Green.

“In any given semester in the most intensive group, it's about 80 to 90 kids that are part of the youth development, job skills, and program assistant programs.”

The program teaches each student a range of different skills and abilities, including a great deal of patience. “You don’t build a boat in a day,” says Gnaro Teofilo, a boat building student. “Over time, you plane stuff, the planing is annoying, it takes a week to do one thing perfectly so that the boat doesn’t sink.”

Teofilo goes on to say that, “I’ve learnt teamwork with all the students since there’s around 15 of us at the end of the day so I have to be able to work with them or nothing’s going to get done in both boat building and on-water.”

The programs also bring together far-reaching interests of each student and lets them explore those interests, all while encouraging the practice of that interest and confidence in their own abilities. 

Anajess Alvarez, a Job Skills Boat Building Apprentice says that, “I saw my creative side come out ... I enjoy art a lot and I saw those skills come out.”

The work Rocking The Boat does is vital to its community and helping those young adults who live there develop their confidence in their own abilities, despite the challenges and lack of resources they experience on a day-to-day basis. 

“Hunts Point is in the poorest congressional District in the nation and it's actually the poorest zip code east of the Mississippi,” says Green, “so we're dealing with a very, very challenged population of young people who just don't have anything like the resources that most of Americans have.”

This means that Rocking The Boat works hard to provide as many resources as possible. “We do a great deal of work with families, with their school, with other support resource. We have three social workers on the staff who are essential to kind of connecting what kids are doing here to the needs and other resources or lack thereof in the rest of their lives.” 

Green emphasizes that, “Rocking The Boat is not a job training program. We are very clearly using boat building, environmental science, sailing as mediums to help kids get wherever they want to go in life.” 

While the boats are the focus of the work at Rocking The Boat, it is the skills and confidence that the students learn while working on the boats or on the water, coupled with the support from the staff of social workers that are the goal of all the youth programs. 

“We're open to see kids grow and develop in lots of different directions, most essentially, though, with a sense of purpose and empowerment and possibility, and if we generate a couple of boat builders and environmental scientists and ship captains, I'd be extra excited.”

Green himself has learnt a lot through Rocking The Boat, not least how to build a boat, something of which he had no knowledge before the teacher gave him the plans and encouragement he needed. 

“I'm as much of an experiential learner as everyone we work with and so I've learnt all these things just by figuring them out and doing them,” he says. 

This constant learning on the part of everyone involved from the newest of participants up to the CEO is something that helps maintain a relaxed atmosphere where, though the emphasis is on learning and safety, everyone can feel comfortable to ask questions. 

In order to ensure that the programs are doing what they are intended to do, Rocking The Boat monitors the students and the way they are getting on with their programs. 

“We actually very carefully measure a whole bunch of different, what we call 'youth development factors' like communication, team-building, leadership, problem solving,” says Green. 

By observing the students and recording these observations three times a semester, Rocking The Boat can learn how they can best help students, as well as the results of their work. 

It’s a question of seeing how the participants change over time, says Green. “The kid who was quiet in the corner at the beginning of the semester is now hanging out and chatting with new friends by the end of the semester and perhaps their communication skills have developed in that time.”

Perhaps one of the most important things that Rocking The Boat teaches its students is “A basic sense of self-confidence and purpose,” says Green. “We hear the kids talking a lot about purpose: 'I feel I have a reason to get through my challenges because there's something worth fighting for.’ [It’s] an amazingly exciting thing to hear kids talk about.”

Since its founding in 1996, Rocking The Boat has seen “2,000 kids take part in a really intensive, long-term way in terms of the number of people we've served in that period and maybe 20,000 or so have participated and got out on the water.”

Nowadays, they take 3,000 people out on the water each year and are growing with each year of operation, bringing together the community as well as helping each individual participant who comes through their programs. 

More than anything, the goal of Rocking The Boat is to support the people it works so hard for. “I just hope they feel good about themselves,” says Green, “that they feel happy, they feel unified, they feel accomplished, they feel like that can't wait till they come back, and I hear that from them all the time.”

Despite the daily grind of running the programs and the nonprofit, Green finds that the frequent moments where he can see or hear about the amazing impact they’re having is enough to make everything worth it. 

“Even though there are times when I leave here really frustrated, I think 'no, how about that, we actually are doing something',” he says.

“Those moments where I see or hear the kind of stuff that really makes me feel good about the work that we're all doing, it's incredibly gratifying and fulfilling and humbling in many ways.”

To learn more about Rocking The Boat, please visit their website and Facebook page