This Bronx nonprofit teaches life skills through boat building
Rocking the Boat gives kids the opportunity to use their hands and minds to build something great. Their motto is: 'Kids don't just build boats, boats build kids.'
In 1995 I decided to take a semester off from college. I had been going to school my whole life and I needed to do something on my own terms that gave me exposure to the world outside the classroom. I liked working with my hands and I was curious about education, so spent the summer employed at a carpentry shop. Then in the fall, I interned as an educator on a tall ship, and by November, was I was volunteering with a science teacher at a junior high school in East Harlem. The teacher told me he had a dream to build a boat with his students and wondered if I wanted to give it a try. Something about the combination of building and teaching felt right, and I agreed to take on the project. He handed me a simple set of plans for an eight-foot dinghy clipped from the back of a hobby magazine and a pile of lumber he had salvaged from a nearby construction site. Off I went.
For the next six months I spent a day a week volunteering in an unused shop space at the school. I was back in a classroom, yet it was a whole new world as I worked with about eight boys and girls to slowly measure, cut, glue, and screw together the pieces that would become the boat. Early on, I was surprised to learn that none of my students knew how to read a ruler. They had all been taught fractions in third or fourth grade, but since they had never actually had a reason to measure anything, they had no reason to remember. It was amazing to watch the moments of inspiration as kids finally understood how a half of a half magically becomes a quarter. And then it was even more amazing to watch them measure and cut a five-and-a-quarter-inch board so that it fit perfectly against another. They were using what they had just learned and had a reason to remember it.
By June we had finished the boat. The kids named it the Dolphin after the school’s mascot. Carefully we carried it out of the classroom, through the halls, and down three flights of steps to the swimming pool in the basement of the school. We launched it into the pool’s chlorinated waters and I watched as each builder nervously took turns stepping into the boat, not sure whether to trust that the thing they built would actually keep them afloat. But it did, and one after the other, the kids paddled their way out to the middle of the pool. When they got back to the side of the pool and out of the boat, those nervous smiles had turned to pride.
They had built something that really worked! It was thrilling to see and it made me realize that these kids had used their brains and their hands and together created something that could literally both keep them afloat and take them places. Wow, I thought, I wonder how much further we could go.
More than 20 years later Rocking the Boat is a fixture in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx—one of the poorest zip codes east of the Mississippi. The program operates out of a 6,000-square-foot warehouse—customized with a professional grade workshop, classrooms, an environmental lab, and library—adjacent to the Bronx River. Over 800 students have participated in Rocking the Boat’s long-term engagement youth development programs and many thousands more in our broader reaching public programs.
The program has grown beyond just building boats, now including environmental science and sailing as additional mediums for youth development. Moreover, a team of three social workers provide comprehensive social, emotional, academic, and post-secondary support to our students and alumni.
Consistent with what I originally pictured, Rocking the Boat’s focus continues to be creating opportunities for participants to see they can do something remarkable—to turn raw wood, step-by-step, into a beautiful, functional boat; to track the slow, steady return of long-legged wading birds to the river they’ve been restoring; to sail beyond their neighborhood, literally beyond their horizon; or to be the first person in their family to go to and graduate from college. And beyond what I ever imagined, the organization partners with scores of local schools and community-based organizations, employs dozens of our own graduates in full- and part-time positions, and brings lasting positive impact to the lives we touch.