Spirit of America introduces kids to boating -- and the nonprofit is raising money to reach more kids

December 3, 2018

Spirit of America introduces kids to boating -- and the nonprofit is raising money to reach more kids

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Boating inherently comes with barriers.

If you didn’t grow up around boats, you don’t know much about them. And you don’t necessarily know how to learn. It’s not like you can sign your kindergartner up for boating the same way you can for soccer.

But you can send your seventh grader to a Spirit of America boating course.

Spirit of America, a Mentor-on-the-Lake-based nonprofit, partners with schools, park systems and other organizations to offer free courses in the basics of paddle, sail and power craft.

The premise is to educate kids – giving them life skills and a taste of career opportunities -- while encouraging them to embrace boating.

“We’re bringing young people to the water,” said Cecilia Duer, Spirit of America president and executive director. “We’re teaching basic boating, then showing what else they can do with it.”

The Duer family founded Spirit of America in 1995, naming the foundation after the Great Lakes Power Companies’ winning sailboat.

They Duers started working with Lake Metroparks, graduating 57 students that first year. Now the program is offered in 20 locations, including Lorain, Lake and Ashtabula counties, as well as in Hawaii, Tennessee and Florida. Spirit of America gives each partner $250,000 in equipment to start, and the local groups sustain the programs by using the equipment in other fee-based activities.

Through classroom lessons, in-pool practice and 40 hours of on-the-water instruction, middle school students earn their state boating license, practice drowning prevention and learn how to operate all kinds of vessels. They meet dive teams, firefighters and Coast Guard staff in a curriculum that includes national education and physical education standards. Curricula can be adapted, so kids with developmental and physical disabilities can participate.

Spirit of America has graduated about 20,000 kids.

“This program is so much more than just learning how to safely operate a water craft. This program teaches young children to overcome their fears, to work as a team, to have respect for each other, and to build a child’s confidence,” said graduate Ally Ulrich, a graduate and volunteer who is now a student at Mercyhurst College.

Ulrich, who has been inducted into Spirit of America’s Youth Boating Hall of Fame, was already comfortable on the water. But the program gave her the freedom to safely operate a boat and kayak whenever she wanted.

“I think it is safe to say that I will be a life long boater, and I hope to help carry on the mission and inspire other children who are interested in learning to operate on water vessels,” she wrote in an email. “I think it is so cool coming back to see graduates as volunteers and hear all their stories of how they took their families out for a boat ride all summer, or that they joined a sailing team at their school, or that they go paddling with their friends from Spirit.”

Spirit of America wants to create an endowment to make sure their work can continue in perpetuity. The Duers aim to raise $2.5 million in 2019, the nonprofit’s 25th year.

“We have to grow,” Duer said. “In order to do that, we have to endow this foundation.”

Spirit of America is looking for members of its 1995 graduating class, pictured below. If you participated then, get in touch!

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