The goal is to get underserved children in Hartford to use kayaks and canoes. Two men and a park program intend to do this. – Hartford Courant

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Hartford – For Friends of Keney Park board member Alyssa Peterson, it was about getting kids on the water.

And the safe and educational way to do it is a new program that seeks to bring paddle sports to the city and to underserved youth for the first time.

The “City Paddles” program is the first in Main Stream Canoes and Kayaks’ new non-profit educational extension in conjunction with the Friends of Keney Park.

Instead of requiring kids to buy paddling equipment, program leaders Tim Sullivan and Henry Hester want to bring it all to them.

Both are retired members of the local Pratt & Whitney and Carpenters union and said they were passionate about exposing them to the outdoors.

Sullivan also owns the 48-year-old Main Stream Canoes and Kayaks of New Hartford, which he purchased from one of the founders, Jack Casey. He hopes to continue Casey’s legacy by breaking down the financial barriers that prevent young people in the city from participating in boating sports.

“When I bought the business, Jack told me, I started because when I was a kid in Hartford I couldn’t canoe,” Sullivan said. “You couldn’t rent canoes anywhere. It was, you’re closed, the rich did it. The poor didn’t…it’s like [the] same kind of mindset about skiing, which costs so much money, I can’t do that or my kids can’t do that.

“His mission was to make it affordable. We strive to do that, that the kids in the city need to be exposed to,” Sullivan said.

Peterson said it was the logical partner in Hartford for the program.

“All the children go to the leisure centres. They go to Parker Memorial, Metzner in the South End, or you go to Aroyo in Parksville. Now what is it? You have the pool, basketball court, ball courts, etc. That’s what an urban recreation center is,” she said. “An urban recreation center is not a paddle sport…it’s a chance to really put [the Connecticut program] No Child Left Inside in practice. It’s putting their money where their mouth is.

Peterson also said the City Paddles program can help the city’s youth gain confidence on the water, dispelling the racist myth that black people can’t or can’t swim.

“It’s a question of children [being] exposed to water,” she said.

“A lot of them have probably never been on the water…they’ll learn to be confident in the water if they can’t swim, because everybody knows that myth, you know, it doesn’t matter to about children who can’t swim.They will gain confidence [and] team building is something totally different that has never been offered in the capital city of Hartford,” she said.

Sullivan, who enjoys the outdoors, also recognizes that if city residents were not exposed to the outdoors, there would be no personal membership to participate in such activities.

“I’m not crazy enough to think that if people in urban centers aren’t exposed to the outdoors, they’re not going to attach themselves to it,” he said. “When you come looking for money, or you look at them with issues, it’s like ‘oh, that’s fine, but I have other things that I care about.’

“If they come out, invest in them…[and] develop a love for it, it will become important to them. It is about giving opportunities to children. There are other paths, there are other paths,” he said.

As for recruitment, Sullivan hopes to work with local community centers and recruit college youth to participate in the program. He plans to teach them the basics of canoeing and paddling, such as water safety and proper boat handling.

“Everyone in the state knows the Keney golf course. Nobody knows the Keney Pond house,” he said.

Photo of Keney Park Pond.

“In a perfect world, we would have 30 to 40 children here every day, in a week. Learn to canoe, learn to paddle, learn to stay safe on the water, and how to behave, what is expected of them, how to handle the boat, [and] what are the parts of a boat…” he said, “And let them take it wherever they want. But let them know they have this avenue. We are all in it. Everyone is on a computer. And everyone is in high-stress environments, [but by] giving them refuge or respite – it cannot be overstated.

Hester also said that for the program to happen and continue to improve the park, it will take conversations, with those with influence and with each other.

“It’s about having the conversations to make it happen. We must [have] a conversation about where we dream, where we want to go. some of the things we’ve done,” he said. “Because I’m the one we’ve become the average person like me and the others on board. We’re just here to let people know we’re here…we have to do that even with our city.

“Let the partners understand who the partners are. The city has been very good to us. And actually, we’ve been very good to the city. Because we’ve been driving this park for 34 years, [along with support] of the state delegation. They work closely with us…” he said.

The plan for the program is to start students at Keney Park Pond and other small ponds in Hartford and then they would like to expand to New Britain and Torrington in the future.

To fund the program, Main Stream Canoes and Kayaks will hold its first fundraiser for the City Paddles program at 5 p.m., Friday, October 14 at The Red Barn at 170 Main St., New Hartford.

They will have a bonfire with food, music, beer, wine available and are asking for $20 donations. For more information, email [email protected]

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