Non-Profit ‘Rocking the Boat’ Makes Waves For Underserved Bronx Teens

Rocking the Boat students rowed their hand-built boats at a day-long rowing fundraiser that took place on Saturday (9/21/13).

Rocking the Boat students rowed their hand-built boats at a day-long rowing fundraiser that took place on Saturday, Sept 21st.

Though Hunts Point juts into the Bronx River, few local residents have sailed down it, and even fewer in a boat they built themselves. This rare opportunity is what Rocking the Boat, a Hunts Point-based nonprofit, offers Bronx high school students who are driven to discover what is beyond their overcrowded and limited public school classrooms.

Through programs that focus on boatbuilding, on-water maritime skills, and environmental conservation, Rocking the Boat participants become seasoned in a wide range of maritime trade and professional skills, as well as develop a sense of pride for the wooden boats they have built by hand.

“I learned how to use power tools, I learned how to work with wood, and you don’t typically think that you’re going to do that if you grow up in the Bronx,” says Alyssa Coloni, a current participant and senior at Aquinas high school. She added: “If you grow up in a city… you’re probably not going to have wood shop or really amazing art classes that you can try different things.”

Because of the skills she learned at Rocking the Boat, Coloni now wants to be a professional artist and plans to apply to the Rhode Island School of Design—an aspiration she hadn’t considered possible until joining the program.

Additionally, through the process of boatbuilding teens learn essential skills necessary for securing and retaining professional jobs.

“Rocking The Boat is a very good organization. [The students learn] personal development through team building and they develop their leadership skills,” says Kevin Wolfe, a District Representative from State Senator Jeff Klein’s office, who works closely with Hunts Point residents and has witnessed how the organization has benefited his teen constituents.

For Coloni, Rocking the Boat has taken her out of her shell. “I never used to work with people; I hated working with other people. But if you’re at Rocking the Boat you have to work with other people. You build this team kind of bond thing.’”

Adam Green, the Founder and Executive Director of Rocking the Boat, originally conceptualized the project as a way to connect kids to education through the environment, and learned the necessary boat building techniques alongside his first cohort of students back in 1996. By earning an Echoing Green Fellowship, he made Rocking the Boat an official nonprofit in 1998 and today it serves nearly 3,000 students annually.

There are three tiers of program participation: a youth development program, which teaches high school students the basics of boat building, on-water navigation, and environmental restoration; a job skills program, which offers paid apprenticeships to a select group of former students to continue their trade and professional development; and a paid Program Assistant program in which college-age alumni supervise participants of the programs from where they have just graduated.

An unofficial fourth tier includes alumni who succeed into full-time staff positions; three are currently employed.

Apprentices earn $7.25/hr and Program Assistants earn $10/hr. For Green, providing a nurturing environment for students to hold jobs—and for many, their first—was a “no brainer”, yet it is Green’s recognition of investing in the students he teaches and providing them with serious, on-the-ground work experience that sets Rocking the Boat apart from other Bronx-based nonprofits.

“These kids are coming from the poorest congressional district in the country but are so self-aware and that’s not something that would’ve happened if they hadn’t had these sort of confidence building activities,” says Amanda Wright, a New Jersey native and 5-time participant in their annual rowing fundraiser.

Ambitious students thrive at Rocking the Boat simply because they are given the opportunity to. A current Program Assistant, Alex Severino, who is now a student at BMCC, felt her high school lacked the necessary support to provide her with any sense of value or self-worth.

“I was one of 5,000 freshmen,” Severino explains. “[The guidance counselors] didn’t even know my name. I was just a number with an ID card. But to come after school to a place where they not only know my name, but also trust me with a boat on open water, made me remember that I am my own person. I am not just a teenager. I am not just a disrespected New Yorker. I am me and this is what I can do.”