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ROTY winner Rutabaga shares joy of paddlesports with disadvantaged youth

Rutabaga, the winner of the 2010 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for youth involvement, partners with community centers and schools to share the joy of paddling with kids from low-income families.

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East Madison Community Center in Madison, Wis., introduces kids to all sorts of sports during its summer day camps. But one activity seems to have an especially strong impact on the kids, who are mostly minorities from poor families. 

“Paddlesports is one of the most popular activities among the kids because it’s an empowering sport,” said John Hamerlinck, a youth program manager and teacher at East Madison Community Center. “The children feel like they are in control, and they have a lot of ownership in it. They also learn about safety, and it takes away their fear of the water.”

East Madison is one of several community centers and schools that partner with Rutabaga (, a paddlesports specialty shop in Madison, to introduce young people to paddlesports. The 2010 winner of the SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for youth involvement, Rutabaga runs youth classes for canoeing and kayaking from spring through fall, putting some 1,200 kids on the water each year. And one of Rutabaga’s primary goals is to reach people who would otherwise have no access to paddlesports.

Something totally new

Located in a federal housing complex, the 35-year-old East Madison Community Center provides recreation and education services to low-income families, many of which include children with learning disabilities. Almost 50 percent of the kids are African-American, while 25 percent are Asian and others are multiracial or white. For the past six years, the center has participated in day camps run by Rutabaga, allowing about 30 kids ages 7 to 14 to kayak and canoe a few hours a day over the course of several weeks.

“It’s been great,” said Hamerlinck. “The majority of the children would never have a chance to do these things without Rutabaga.” He said paddling makes a huge impression on the kids because it is totally new and different to them. Many realize for the first time that they can find fun in something other than traditional ball sports. “They enjoy learning something new, and realize that they don’t have to only get exercise through mainstream sports like basketball,” said Hamerlinck. “You can feel good about yourself through activities like kayaking and canoeing.”

He said Rutabaga’s programs also remove many of the kids’ fears and perceptions that the outdoors is a dangerous place. “Many children have never been exposed to swimming or being on a lake,” he said. “They learn safety procedures, and it takes away a big fear factor of water.”

Making a difference

Rutabaga owner Darren Bush said the store has steadily built its youth recreation programs since the early ‘90s, and now has 10 instructors who do canoeing and kayaking classes for about five community centers, 10 schools, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as kids from the general population. The instruction typically takes place near the store, in a pond that connects to the Yahara River.

Rutabaga has recently focused more on serving disadvantaged kids, and about 40 percent of its youth instruction centers on outreach to poor communities. Bush said he wants to put more attention on kids from low-income families because they are the ones who face the biggest obstacles in trying to participate in paddling. And he admits that it’s difficult to make an immediate, significant impact on this demographic.

“We build new paddlers one at a time,” said Bush. “You can’t have a huge impact because the sport is so logistically difficult. You give a kid a bicycle or basketball and they can entertain themselves. Give the kid a boat, and then transportation to a body of water is the biggest challenge for youth.”

While paddlesports is foreign to most low-income families, Bush said that community centers are open to participating in the store’s paddling camps.

“When we present it to centers in a way that makes sense, they’re usually interested,” said Bush. “We’re not going to suggest a one-week camp for kids from a community center in a poor neighborhood. They might not be interested in that. But if we say we’ll do an introduction to paddling, a couple of hours a day for four weeks in a row, who doesn’t want to expose kids to that?”

Nancy Saulsbury, Rutabaga’s director of outdoor programs, said the classes are structured to give the kids a lengthy experience with paddling.

“It’s not the one-shot, field-trip model,” she said, explaining that the instruction is spread over days or weeks so that the kids have more time to feel comfortable with paddling. “The first time they’re not even sure they’re going to get out on the water,” she said. “The second time they know how to get their PFD on, they’ve been in a boat before, and they settle down a bit and are more open to learning. And a few weeks later, they’re excited with the things they can do.”

Saulsbury said she feels especially good about the work with the community centers. “It’s great for all kids, but I especially feel good about reaching out to the community agencies, because those are the kids whose parents can’t provide that opportunity,” she said.

Saulsbury said that Rutabaga also provides many of these kids their first opportunities to learn about nature. At least one Rutabaga instructor is a naturalist, and nature observation has become an increasingly important part of the youth classes. “They learn things such as how to look for turtles, and see great blue herons and red-wing blackbirds, and those are cool, amazing things to these kids,” she said.

The bottom line

While Rutabaga is impacting the community and making a difference in the lives of children and teens, the effort does not come without a financial cost to the business. Community centers, schools and other organizations do have to pay for the classes, but Rutabaga charges a relatively small amount and assists those who cannot afford it. Rutabaga does not make much of a profit, if any, through its outreach, but Bush said that doesn’t really matter.

“I suppose if I pulled everything apart and looked at the bottom line, we’re probably breaking even or are losing a little bit, but if all I cared about was money, you think I’d be doing this?” said Bush. “The god’s honest truth — I do it because I want to. In a former life I was a developmental psychologist, so I love kids. I think kids are the best place to invest. If we have a class and it doesn’t make money, it’s OK. As long as we’re making money overall and supporting the business, that’s fine.”

Bush said he does prefer that a kid have some financial investment in the classes. “I try to have the kids have some skin in the game, even if it’s only a couple of bucks,” he said. “Otherwise, they perceive it as just another free program that’s worth exactly what you pay for it.” However, he said that kids lacking the necessary funds aren’t left out. “If they can’t afford it, we’ll still make it happen, because there are some kids that can’t afford even a few bucks.”

To assist community centers, individual kids and families, Rutabaga established the Josh Kestelman Scholarship Fund. “Josh started as a Rutabaga youth instructor when he was a teen and died of brain cancer in his early 20s,” said Bush. “I would call him radical in his love for getting kids outside.”

Rutabaga raises money for the fund through private donations and through Bratfest, a Memorial Day weekend festival presented by Johnsonville to help non-profit organizations and other community programs raise money ( Bush said the fund is not “a huge amount of money,” but he said it does make the difference in making classes affordable.

Looking to the future

Even though Rutabaga’s youth programs require financial sacrifice, Bush said he realizes that the store is investing in its future. Paddling participation has been dropping, and demographic trends are not favorable for a sport that rarely attracts minorities.

“If I want to have new customers in 10 years, I better do something about it,” said Bush.

He said it’s hard to determine whether the children who take Rutabaga paddling classes will develop a long-term love for the sport. “When you put an 8-year-old in a boat, you won’t know for 10 years whether he’s going to get into it or not,” said Bush. “But we have recruited staff and instructors from kids who have come into the program when they were 10 or 11 years old.”

Key to the paddling shop’s long-term success is the willingness to look in all directions to develop the next generation of boaters.

Mo Kappes, Rutabaga’s program coordinator, said the store has made inroads this spring in taking whitewater boats to pools at high schools to introduce teens to boating. Also, Kappes and another staff member, Jeff Noltner, are working to establish paddling classes for kids in the juvenile justice system. “It’s a way to connect with kids who are disadvantaged, and we would like to use paddling to develop a mentor program,” said Kappes.

While many stores are content to pick from the low-hanging fruit, Rutabaga continues to seek out those who are often overlooked, particularly young people. While this is a challenge, Bush said the store benefits in so many ways, most of which can’t be found at the bottom line of a spreadsheet.

“It brings in good energy,” he said. “When the back lot is full of kids, everybody wants to be there. It’s always exciting, and these kids are so full of life and energy, there’s a barely contained chaos. There’s this young, rambunctious out-there energy that a lot of our world is missing.”

–Marcus Woolf