Agents of Change

Story by Jen Whiting - Photos by Peter Slack

Photo by Peter Slack.

If you were writing a rubric for rowing, what would it look like? You remember rubrics: those pages of detail your teacher would hand out that articulated the criteria that would be used to judge your work. For your writing, the rubric would analyze if you maintained the proper voice, cited your research correctly, applied critical thinking skills to the topic, and built your argument around a credible thesis. If you had to craft a rubric for rowing, what criteria would you design as the measurement of success?

Catherine Reddick is tall, with a down-to-business approach. She rowed at the University of Pennsylvania and then represented the United States at the Pan-Am Games in 2011, winning a silver medal in the women’s double and a bronze medal in the women’s quad. In 2010, as she was training and racing at the elite level, her Vesper teammate, Libby Peters, asked her if she would be part of an effort to launch Philadelphia City Rowing (PCR), a new rowing program aimed at introducing students from Philadelphia’s struggling public schools to the sport and including them in Boathouse Row’s close-knit rowing community.

John Hogan is seasoned in the insurance industry and first picked up an oar because a colleague had rowing pictures and trophies in the office next to his. Hogan served for many years on the Schuylkill Navy, the unifying body on Boathouse Row; his last post was as commodore. When Hogan sold the insurance company he had built over the course of his career, he found himself spending most afternoons on Boathouse Row, volunteering for PCR as the program was developing.

Tony Schneider is a real-estate developer and investor who started rowing when his daughter’s high school team needed a chaperone. He told the coach, “I’ll be a chaperone if you’ll teach me to row.” He is now the chairman of the board for PCR.

These three rowers—along with dozens of other volunteers and coaches—are writing a rubric for rowing that contains more than trophies and workouts. They’ve crafted a vision for their rowing program that goes beyond the typical artifacts of the sport. Their goal is just to the right of the trophies and the medals: they want to change kids’ lives.

“What’s different about PCR, and other programs that are similar in nature,” Reddick explains, “is that we use a sports-based positive youth development model. We use rowing as a base to achieve other things.” She stops, but only for a moment. Keeping up with this rower in conversation is, I imagine, as hard as keeping up with her on the water was when she was training and racing for the U.S. national team.

“Rowing is a vehicle for us to be able to provide a host of services: tutoring, civic and environmental engagement, swim instruction, academic guidance, nutrition education. These are deeply personal. And this isn’t always needed from a rowing program. If a student already has the support systems in place, then just a rowing program is enough.” She forges ahead. “We recognize there’s a void in terms of positive youth development opportunities in our community. Rowing is absolutely iconic in Philadelphia. What we’re trying to do is step in and provide these much-needed opportunities with a sport that is uniquely ‘Philadelphia.’”

“You know the story,” Schneider says, in his matter-of-fact style. “If you live in the wrong zip code, you might not have the best opportunities. We’re trying to change that.”

PCR started in 2010, with a host of volunteers led by Libby Peters. Peters reached out to Reddick and Schneider and together they began putting the building blocks in place for a rowing program that would be judged by different criteria. PCR rowers are recruited from Philadelphia public schools. They train throughout the year, but not just on the water or the erg. PCR begins with rowing but that’s not where it ends. Athletes who are PCR rowers are a part of a larger network of support services aimed at helping them be successful as they work toward graduation and continuing their education.

For the past eight years, PCR rowers have spent afternoons in tutoring sessions, SAT prep courses, being mentored by their coaches and other volunteers in the community and, yes, rowing. And this sort of program isn’t unique to Philadelphia. Reddick is contacted routinely by programs that are trying to emulate what PCR is doing. “I think this model is replicable. Many cities are building programs intended to serve similar communities. I’ve recently talked with people from Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati. They’re cropping up everywhere. These are places where rowing exists, the tradition exists. And they’re seeking to share the benefits of that tradition with others.”

Indeed, there are myriad programs across the country that are based on the model of positive youth development and that also offer mentoring and tutoring support for their athletes. I ask Schneider what it is about PCR that so resonates with him. “What’s really important to us is to attract kids who are at-risk and who we can change their lives with positive sport-based development. Our on-time high school graduation rate is 100 percent and our rate of kids that go on to continue their education is nearly 100 percent. Not everyone is going to a two-year or a four-year college, but they are continuing their education after high school. They’re furthering their ability to build opportunities for themselves.”

And so here it is: that rubric. That notion that success in sport can be measured in many ways. In this instance, rowing can be measured in opportunity; involvement in the sport can build bridges to other lifelong opportunities. I wonder aloud if this is so different from what rowing does in general: build networks and opportunities for its members that extend well beyond the boathouse and the regattas.

Reddick, who spends her days as a transportation infrastructure finance consultant, describes a larger organization that takes the concepts that PCR is built on and expands them into other sports in the Philadelphia area. “The Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative is a collective of organizations that do just what we do, but in other sports. Tennis, soccer, squash. We work with them to continue to develop the enrichment, mentoring, and other support programs. We have all of that, and we share it across the organizations. We see ourselves connected to other rowing programs but also to these other local sports groups.” Reddick talks at a race-rate pace. “The mayor just announced a new program here in Philly. It’s a movement of nonprofits that are promoting out-of-school activities to make sure every student has the chance to engage in the types of opportunities PCR provides.”

Hogan, the board member who can be seen nearly every afternoon on the docks of the PCR boatyard on Boathouse Row, explains it this way, “The rowing is a major part, don’t let anyone fool you. But it takes more than that: counseling, essay writing, SAT prep, tutoring, nutrition, transportation, college site visits…” Hogan grows excited, “We’ve even started an environmental education track. Here we are rowing on a river with wildlife, and it’s just something the kids don’t see all the time.”

I ask Hogan if the students who row for PCR know that rowing is the vehicle for their development as they advance through high school. He answers, “Not in the first year, and probably not in the second one, either. But by the third year, something clicks. They see a teammate who just got accepted to college. We see it all the time. That kid who was showing up late to practice starts showing up on time.”

PCR is offered to its participants at no cost. The rowing, the mentoring, the tutoring—all of it is funded by grants and donations. This, of course, places a large demand on the fundraising and grant-writing activities that PCR does. “It’s the challenge that faces all nonprofits and all rowing programs: money.” Reddick is straightforward in her delivery. “Running a free rowing program is challenging. To bring in the funds to offer this program for free is certainly not a new challenge.” She smiles, “We are always grateful for all of our partners and all of the support we receive, on Boathouse Row and from across the city.”

Indeed, the City of Philadelphia has been a partner with PCR from the beginning. The land that the program operates its boatyard on is owned by the city, the equipment the program started with had been secured years earlier and then, when other similar programs couldn’t quite get off the ground at the time, it was put into storage. When PCR was founded, the city offered the original equipment to the program. “Most of the equipment came from Princeton University,” Hogan explains. “A city superintendent bought used equipment from Princeton: boats, ergs, launches. They sat in a warehouse for years and then this idea—this hope—got the equipment. We’re always talking to colleges about their used equipment.”

Indeed, each of the board members I interviewed had growth on their mind, but not necessarily growth in numbers. “Our measure of success,” Reddick says, “is to achieve the greatest impact we can have on each rower. If that means going from prior involvement with the justice system to a community college, that’s awesome. It that means helping a student get from a 3.8 to a 4.0, fantastic.” She pauses here, briefly, just enough for me to catch up in my note-taking. “100 percent college attendance rate?” She asks the question that many programs like PCR use as a measure of success. “Some of our greatest successes can’t be measured that way. Getting them onto a meaningful path in life… that’s a good goal. Success is different for everyone.”

PCR is approaching the next chapter of its development with the appointment of a new executive director (Caitlin Mance, who led the foundation and corporate giving arm at Community Rowing, Inc., in Boston), and with its sights set on deepening its mission. I did a double-take when I heard this unanimous statement from Reddick, Schneider, and Hogan. The next chapter isn’t necessarily about growth in numbers, it’s about depth of programming. They will continue to build the rowing program, but what they most seek are partnerships that will allow them to deepen the opportunities for mentoring and education.

“The new executive director will spread our mission in academic, rowing, and institutional circles,” Schneider says, “We want to expand the program. In the short term, we are focused not necessarily on numbers, but on the depth of our programming and impact.” A recent renovation of the PCR boatyard on Boathouse Row has, as Schneider explains, “allowed us to be who we already are. We grew so quickly, we needed to reconfigure our facility. But we are also looking to expand our board of directors and our Friends of PCR volunteer community.”

I ask Schneider about the biggest challenge PCR faced as it grew from its infancy to its present, developed state. “It’s hard for me to answer that question,” he says. “We’ve done what we did. We made it happen. Perhaps the hardest challenge is finding the right people, whether it’s coaches or board members. We got support from the rowing community, from city government. There has been tremendous support when we needed it. We’re looking to have greater outreach to the community and greater institutional support.” He pauses here, then goes on, circling back to the coaches at PCR.

“Finding the right coaches is so important to us. Our coaches are doing more than teaching the skills of the sport. They’re developing a relationship with each athlete on a very diverse team. Our coaches are responsible for understanding what the kids are doing academically, engaging in a way that’s sensitive to a young person’s past struggles, helping them connect the lessons they learn on the water to their lives at home and at school.” Add another line to the rubric.

Reddick brings the discussion back to the notion of positive youth development through sport. “This isn’t going to be a new thing anymore,” she says. “This is how more sports programs that serve the population we do are going to be geared—making the most of the opportunity to develop well-rounded student-athletes, not just to win races.”

Reddick is a leader and the feeling of her passion for this idea of sport based youth development is palpable. I ask her if she thinks PCR could have developed its programming any more quickly than it did over the past eight years. She smiles, a rare pause in her momentum. “I’m not sure,” she answers. “My hope is that every new program that does this gets to where we are faster, and beyond.” She reflects, and for a moment I see the pensiveness that every elite rower must develop to be successful. “Sometimes it’s about getting to the finish line faster,” she is, in this sentence, adding to the rubric again, “but only during racing.”