College student Sarah Kelty establishes youth paddling program with Louisville outdoor retailer

Outdoor Nation Youth Summit delegate Sarah Kelty, a 21-year-old college student in Louisville, Ky., is working with River City Canoe & Kayak and Louisville city officials to establish a youth paddlesports mentoring program.

The Outdoor Nation program was launched in 2009 with the primary goal that young people would lead the effort to get more kids outdoors, and Sarah Kelty, a college student in Louisville, Ky., is stepping up to achieve that goal.

Kelty, 21, is working with Louisville city officials and Doug Davis, owner of River City Canoe & Kayak (, a local outdoor specialty store, to create a paddlesports mentoring program for local kids.

“We hope to get it started in early October with a pilot program of 10 to 15 kids,” Kelty told SNEWS®.

She said the basic idea is that Louisville young adults (older teens and those in their early twenties) would serve as mentors and paddling instructors for diverse groups of middle-school-aged kids. “I want the socio-economic status of the kids to be diverse, and we especially want youth who aren’t typically involved in the outdoors,” she said.

The genesis of the program

Kelty’s idea for the program came to light when the city of Louisville chose her to serve as a delegate to the Outdoor Nation Youth Summit, held June 19-20, 2010, in New York City.


(Click here to read the June 30, 2010, SNEWS story, “Outdoor Nation Youth Summit 2010: The voices of America’s youth get louder.”)

To apply for the delegate spot, Kelty (photo – right) submitted a one-page resume, plus an essay on how she would use $1,500 to create a youth paddlesports program or outdoor recreation awareness program.

With minors at Murray State University in sustainable studies and youth and nonprofit leadership, Kelty formulated her plan by tapping into her experience working with Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as three years of experience working at the Bear Creek Aquatic Camp for Girl Scouts.

“From working with Big Brothers Big Sisters through my coursework, and from working at the Girl Scout camp, I’ve found that the mentoring approach is really attractive, and it’s one of the best ways to instill a love of the outdoors,” said Kelty.

Rallying support from the city

The city of Louisville got involved in the Outdoor Nation Youth Summit largely because of Davis of River City Canoe & Kayak.

Davis said he learned about the Youth Summit while attending a Paddle Council meeting at this year’s Canoecopia, the annual paddlesports expo presented by the Rutabaga paddlesports shop in Monona, Wis.

“(Outdoor Foundation Executive Director) Chris Fanning gave a presentation about what she was trying to do, and it sounded like an amazingly good idea to me,” said Davis.

He told SNEWS he really likes the concept of young people, rather than just adults, leading the way to inspire kids to get outdoors.

“It doesn’t matter how cool our sports are, once you get to a certain age and try to tell a young person, ‘You should go out and do this,’ it comes across the same as the gym coach telling them they should run four laps,” Davis said.

After Canoecopia, Davis met with Louisville city officials and convinced them that the city should support the formation of youth programs for various outdoor activities.

River City Canoe & Kayak then worked with Louisville Metro Parks, Jefferson Memorial Forest and the Louisville Mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement to put out a call for Youth Summit delegates. (Click here to see the press release on SNEWS, “River City Canoe & Kayak sponsors Louisville Delegate to Youth Summit.”)

Davis said that he and city officials originally planned for several Louisville retailers to send delegates to the summit. The idea was that each retailer would be specialized in a particular activity — paddling, climbing, etc. — and would sponsor a delegate who would return from the summit and set up a program for a specific activity.

“This way, no matter what a young person might be interested in, we’d have all the bases covered,” said Davis. “Unfortunately, I was the only local retailer that signed on.”

Despite the lack of business involvement, Davis said the city is still fully supporting his store and Kelty in their efforts to establish a paddlesports mentoring program.

“Certain metro council members and others are looking at providing her with funding and grants,” said Davis. “The local Girl Scouts Council, which controls the entire region of southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, is looking at providing her with boats and paddling equipment, which would lower the costs considerably.”

Davis said city personnel are also seeking out possible mentors from various youth organizations in town, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Boys and Girls clubs, as well as universities.

The next step

Kelty said she is now contacting universities and paddling organizations in the Louisville area to identify potential mentors and instructors for the program, which will include monthly workshops and paddling instruction on the Ohio River and other area lakes and rivers. She said the program would start with flatwater paddling, but she hopes it could evolve to include whitewater instruction.

She said she also hopes to involve the Skipping Fish Boat School in Louisville (, which offers paddling programs and summer camps for youth ages 13 to 18. “They came to our Girl Scout camp for a season to teach the girls how to build kayaks and taught traditional, Greenland-style paddling,” said Kelty. “I’m hoping to work with them to teach the kids about the origins of kayaking, and maybe build their own kayak paddle out of wood.”

As she works out the details of the mentoring program, Kelty said she is drawing from her experience attending the Outdoor Nation Youth Summit.

“I had a base idea about it before going, but most important was sitting down in groups with other youth and brainstorming ideas on what we need to do to get more youth outdoors,” she said. “The summit is where I got the idea of getting more diversity in the mentoring program, and we discussed the barriers for getting kids involved — thinking about how they’re going to be transported and how to approach their parents.”

Putting together such a program is hard work — especially for someone still working her way through college. But this is really just the next step in Kelty’s longtime devotion to kids and the environment. A Girl Scout member since second grade, she is now a lifetime member of the organization, and traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2009 to attend a conference for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts ( This year, she served as a WAGGGS representative at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The knowledge and leadership skills Kelty has acquired while traveling abroad and attending the Youth Summit are now being put to use close to home. And at least one thing is working in her favor.

Louisville carries the motto “Possibility City.” And when you have a motivated young person with good ideas and plenty of support, anything is possible.

–Marcus Woolf