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Inner City Kids Camp 2022

Inner City Kids Camp or Jessie’s Kids Camp are the two names for one week of my year depending on who you ask, they represent a week of kayaking for kids from disadvantaged homes. Through the years, since 2002 to be exact, Jessie Stone, my family, my parents, Margie and Hayden, CT locals and whoever we’ve sucked in to help us, spend one week a year working with teenagers from different programs to teach them about the outdoors and MOST importantly- whitewater kayaking. Jessie Stone grew up in NYC and being an avid kayaker and multi time US Team Paddler, she LOVES paddling, not only does she absolutely love it, she wants everyone everywhere to experience it.

While the programs we worked with have changed, they all have an underlying theme of kids whose life is faced with unique challenges. My first year teaching I was only 12 years old, and I loved spending time with these kids, they were FUN, SO different from me, we found ourselves laughing non stop, and enjoying just how different we were, but we connected on the base that we were teenagers going kayaking together. Hearing their stories, their honesty, and their realities was eye opening. This year wasn’t much different. Most of the programs the kids are at a form of boarding school, due to things at home or other difficulties. This year you could tell these kids had been exposed to the outdoors more, as their school offered more outdoor educational programs, versus Boys and Girls Harbor, where we had to console kids when they were traumatized from a bug landing on them, the feeling of grass under their bare feet and so forth. I often wondered who was teaching who, these kids exposed me to such a vast variety of ways of life, that I didn’t know existed in the US.

This year began with a day in their pool, we had about 15 total, 13 kids and two instructors learning- it’s always good to get the counselors involved too! Step 1 is always figuring out who can swim. Due to this program having a pool, most were good to go. We had 3 other kids from another program where they did not have a pool, so we separated out and by the end of the day had everyone swimming (mostly comfortably.) The goal for the day was to get them pulling their skirts. While some took awhile to get where they were comfortable, or at least not traumatized after swimming out of their kayak, most were pulling it with ease and feeling so proud of themselves. Each kid was constantly reaching for an instructor- for us to see how they were doing, to see if they’ve made progression. And honestly they did make SO much progression in that pool.

Day 2 we had rollers….

We started in their swamp- or pond system- it was like a nature reserve with a creek/ pond that weaved around tall trees, flowers, and turtles. It was beautiful and caught me off guard, what an amazing sanctuary for these kids to experience. Being out of the pool caught several kids off guard, their response to multiple things such as not keeping the boat straight, the idea of flipping in dirty water, the million what if’s they created in their head. But then we got to a place that had flowers, and we caught a turtle and the distraction and ability to notice where we were and what we were doing sunk in. The kids were stoked. When we turned around they were so proud that had gone so far, and gotten to see things, you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to see. Landscapes around us from the river, truly are the best.
That afternoon we went back to the pool, to review strokes and concepts and introduce the roll. We had several kids rolling and when they tried to kick us out of the pool, the echo of sad groans filled the room. We weren’t done yet.

Day 3 was the first day of river-running, the Housatonic.

With the NE having non stop high flows, we opted to do a very short section. This gave us time to review Eddy-turns, river signals, strokes and so forth. The run ended with a longer but splashy wave train and a nice aggressive eddy line. The faces of the kids hit about every emotion, but EVERY single one had the face of pride at the bottom. Sopping wet pride. Their were a few flips, and a few moments of panic but the first words we got to the kids were- don’t worry, I’ve got you and the panic subsided. The kids ended this day with such a sense of accomplishment- it was radiating out of them, in their smiles and interactions.

Day 4 was the Graduation Day.

This year the camp was cut short in advance due to scheduling conflicts. Day 4 was a longer section of the Housatonic. Jessie and I scouted the section before the camp started, and I liked the high water, it meant less rocks which is always a concern for me, but it also came with bigger eddylines and waves! The kids were all SUPER excited, those that initially weren’t planning on attending this day, wouldn’t miss it for the world. I was so proud of the kids determination and enthusiasm, it was so heartwarming. We put on and the kids were immediately asking when they could go through a big wave. Luckily they didn’t have long as the biggest rapid was the first one. This wave train is a solid rapid for new comers, I was nervous, but the kids didn’t seem to be. They all nailed the rapid and showed such great adaptability and strength through the rapid. They had proper posture, they moved around in the rapid and they remained calm (at least on the outside). Once through the biggest rapid they gained confidence and asked Dane to assist them in surfing. Dane stood in a shallower hole and each took turns learning about their edges and how to surf. We then carried on downstream where we worked on rolls, leaning into rocks, reading rapids and so forth.

Each year we teach this camp, while I may be teaching, I am a student. I learn so much about these kids and how to help set them up for success. I am so blessed to have the opportunity to work with them, and look for their strengths to ensure they feel like they are making progress in their kayak. Having enough instructors really helps us with this- it allows us to cater and look for the individuality of each kid. I often wonder if we could approach this more in other areas of life, if these kids that have been disadvantaged, could get farther easier. Their determination is inspiring, and watching them excel in their kayaks, gives me so much hope and confidence that they will excel in other areas of life as well.

Some things I learnt about teaching that can used elsewhere:

– Think less about what you’re trying to get them to do, and focus on what they want to get out of the experience.
– Take time to listen, and build a level of trust
– When listening, don’t give advice or direction, allow people to talk through things without interjecting with your perspective.
– Award vulnerability see it as a strength, as honesty helps so much down the road when you’re working through fears.

Writing this blog has a full circle appeal to me as the new school we worked with, reached out after reading a blog on JK about previous years camp.

Happy Paddling and I can’t wait for Jesse’s Camp 20231

Emily Jackson-Troutman