Sailing is often an expensive sport, and that means it’s not always accessible to everyone who might be interested. But the Community Sailing Center on Lake Champlain in Burlington is working hard to give all kids the opportunity to get out on the water.
In partnership with Burlington school districts, the center runs an after-school program teaching elementary school kids leadership, communication and teamwork skills – as they learn to rig and sail a boat on their own. In Burlington, 24 percent of the resident population live below the poverty line, so the center and the schools provide funding to help low-income families send their kids to participate.
“Sailing is really just our platform,” says Jen Guimares, the associate director at the Community Sailing Center.
“It's not necessarily about the sport of learning to sail but more about how everyone has to handle the lines together," she says. "They have to talk to one another to make sure that the person steering the boat has someone up for a controlling the sails and then they have to build trust amongst the team.”
Guimares says by learning to sail 23-foot keelboats as a team, the kids learn leadership training, communication training and social skill development.
Not only that, but she says it also gives all the students an opportunity to experience multiple roles: “Folks who are natural leaders also are then required to be good followers, and those that don't particularly choose to lead at first can then lead afterwards.”
Building a new relationship to the lake
Over the past 13 years, the Community Sailing Center has collaborated with over 60 organizations to help get thousands of students who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity out on the lake to experience the sport of sailing.
Guimares says the first day often focuses on general boat knowledge and safety training, but by the second day the students are out on the water, often sailing the boat themselves as a coach rides along.
The sailing center has been working with Burlington school districts to expand their program by sending staff to schools in advance of the program to do some lessons on the lake and its ecosystem.
“It’s something we’ve been really appreciative of,” says Christie Gallese, the director of expanded learning opportunities for the Burlington school district.
She says she hopes there will be even more opportunities once the new building is constructed at the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. Earlier this month, Burlington’s Board of Finance approved the preliminary development agreement and ground lease of city land for the Community Sailing Center’s proposed new waterfront building.
The center is proposing to build and operate a 10,000-square-foot classroom, office and storage building with an additional outdoor storage yard and access facility.
Gallese says low-income students are already benefiting from the existing programming.
“Certainly one of the biggest pieces for us is that access to the lake in a really meaningful way,” says Gallese. “So, access to not only the boats and to really qualified instructors, but being able to be here and build a sense of stewardship for the lake.”
Sailing into confidence
Mandy Harris, the site director of the afterschool program at J.J. Flynn Elementary, recounted the story of one third-grade student whose mother signed him up for the sailing program, but he was petrified of going out on the water.
“He kept coming to me saying, ‘Am I going to have to drive the boat? Am I going to be alone on the boat? What if I fall off the boat?’" says Harris.
His first day out Harris says he was still scared, and told her he wasn’t sure if he was going to go back.
Then, week four, the crew encountered some rough waves out on the lake.
“The wind changed really quickly and some of the kids came back really scared, but he was just so confident,” says Harris. “One of our staff members who was on the boat said it was funny because he was the biggest leader of them. All the kids were sitting there getting really scared,” and he took charge.
Harris says the student signed up for the class again the following spring.
Guimares says she’s seen other students step up and embrace a leadership role as well.
“It’s a great platform," she says. "And really, these programs are using sailing to do so much more.”