In the early days of Row New York, when she was running pretty much the whole show, Row New York founder and CEO Amanda Kraus convinced the principal of Flushing High School in Queens to let her hand out flyers to the students.
Kraus spent $70 on 1000 flyers - "a large amount of money for us at the time" - and spent the afternoon handing them out to students.
"They were beautiful postcards of rowers, with information on when kids could come and try out," she recalled. "I handed out 1000 postcards by myself in the hallway, and then when I walked outside the building to leave at 3:30, when all the kids were long gone, and there was literally a blanket of postcards; you could barely see the ground because it was covered with postcards of rowers.
"It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life because, not only had most of these kids thrown out these postcards, but I had to get on my hands and knees and pick up the 700 postcards because I couldn't just leave them."
In those salad days, Kraus also served as coach, van driver, attendance taker, retention coordinator, and more. The effort slowly gathered steam, and today Row New York has become one of the world's flagship programs for outreach in the sport - not to mention a rowing home to hundreds of rowers at three outposts in New York City.
From those days of sweating $70 for a stack of flyers, Row New York is working toward a major improvement in Manhattan to be called the Row New York Community Boathouse and Learning Center, which will not only include a new boathouse, but also will create a public park environment to surround the boathouse. In addition, the boathouse itself will not only greatly expand the rowing facilities, but will include a dedicated space for Row New York's longtime academic programs, which include SAT prep and tutoring.
$19.5 million of a projected $40 million has been raised so far toward the project, which will be built on the site of the current Row New York boathouse at the eastern end of Dyckman Street in Manhattan, where they row out of the floating Peter Jay Sharp boathouse.
At a time that the sport of rowing seeks ways to diversify its population, Row New York has served as a beacon of sorts for many programs and coaches who are trying to get traction to serve under-resourced communities near them. We spoke with Kraus about some of the lessons she and Row New York coaches and staff have learned in the 18+ years since her days handing out flyers in Queens, as well as the plans for the new boathouse in Manhattan.
Row New York in 2020
While a varied constituency still rows out of the facilities, Row New York ceded operations of their masters program to Top Row a while back to focus exclusively on the "heart and soul" of Row New York, as founder and CEO Amanda Kraus notes, their youth programs.
The pandemic has had an effect on those programs, both budgetary and logistical, causing a temporary focus only on high school rowers, with no new recruitment of middle schoolers this year (last year's eighth graders will continue this year), and a reduction in current youth rowers from 250 to around 180.
Those athletes are resuming activities in singles even now, and Kraus said that once the pandemic is under control, they plan to return to pre-pandemic participation levels.
Over 80% of those athletes participate free of charge, a ratio that Row New York actively tries to maintain. Kraus emphasizes that everyone rows together irrespective of their ability to pay. "Whether you're rowing for free or you're one of the paying kids who pay on a sliding scale, you all train together and race together, all in the same boats."
Finding Kids Who Might Want to Row: "I Wanted to be Part of Something"
To be able to go into schools to find interested youngsters, Row New York maintains relationships with a number of "partner schools" in the city, located primarily in low income communities.
"The coaches spend a lot of time going into schools and presenting the program, and recruiting, recruiting, recruiting," Kraus said. "It requires some effort, because kids in New York City who've never been exposed to rowing, and when you are talking with young people of color, it can be foreign to them when you walk in and say 'Hey, do you want to give this a try?' It's not like if you were in a town where someone's big sister rows, and their cousin rows, and their dad rows, and they are already familiar with the sport.
"It becomes a big piece of what we do, to say "Hey, this could be for you, too. You could love this sport.'"
Kraus said that a couple key elements to connecting with kids are finding allies in the schools who can give you a platform and maybe an introduction, and then reflecting back to kids that people like them can do the thing you are trying to get them to do.
"Ideally when we stand up in front of a group of kids, there is a great administrator or a teacher who is our ally saying, 'Hey, listen to this. This could be really neat for you,'" Kraus said. "We present not only the rowing, but also the college-readiness piece, and they help us get those opportunities across.
"For a lot of kids, the academic programs are the reason they sign up - 'This is a way for me to visit colleges and get my grades up and get SAT prep.' It's a huge part of what we do, but there is more to it as well. When we do our surveys at the end of the year, especially for the newer kids, and ask 'Why did you sign up for Row New York?', the number one answer is always 'I wanted to try something new.'
"Or, and this is my personal favorite, they write 'I wanted to be a part of something,'" she said. "That one still always gets me. Don't we all want to be a part of something?"
More Thoughts on Getting Kids to Come to the Boathouse
Kraus adds that having people who have similar backgrounds to and even look like the students can be critical.
"You know, you can't be what you can't see, and ideally, if the person looks like the kids they are speaking with and can say, "I was a part of this program. I'm a rower.'"
"It also helps to be honest, to lead with "Hey, I know this might sound crazy, trying this sport that you've never heard of,' but working on making that personal connection with kids and getting to know them a little bit makes a difference."
"Over the years, I found the most successful but obviously the most time intensive tactic, when you go to these big recruiting sessions, is getting the names and contact information for kids and their parents, and then making phone calls and sending texts. Saying 'Hey, Ed, I met you at the auditorium, you were the kid who liked football, or something about them, and saying "Remember, we're having the tryouts on Tuesday, can you come? Do you have any questions?
Then the Work - and the Fun - Starts
Once you get the kids to the boathouse, then the work starts.
"That's only half the process, getting kids in the boathouse, right?" Kraus said. "Your work isn't over; it's just started, my friend (laughs)!
"But I think that's where it gets really fun, and you have to think about it in a completely different way," she said. "The most important piece is to have a culture in place where the coaches are really youth developers who are excited that it's their job to develop a culture and a community, and to be welcoming. To say, "Ed, you're new and you're in ninth grade. You don't know anyone else. I'm the coach, and I'm excited to see you, I'll introduce you to other kids. And if you don't show up the next day, I'm going to call your mom. If your mom only speaks Spanish, I'm going to find someone who speaks Spanish to talk to your mom. I'm going to make sure that you know that we're going to teach you to swim.' And then do it, just stick with them.
"Once you've done that, then it's really not that different from coaching anyone. Once the kids are invested, then they're going to fall in love with rowing for the same reasons that any kid falls in love with rowing. But I think you need that extra engagement from the coaches in the beginning to say, 'Hey, this is a place for you and we're so excited that you're here.'"
"It's Doable Anywhere"
The process has found Kraus and Row New York coaches driving vans from Shea Stadium subway stop and under the Long Island Expressway to the Flushing boathouse, doing the same from the 1 and A trains to the Manhattan boathouse, handing out Metro cards, having snacks for kids who have not eaten since breakfast, and more.
Most RNY parents are not in a position to drop off and pick up kids at the boathouse, and as Kraus notes, had they not been able to shuttle kids from the subway, "we would not have had a program." But Kraus does not see these as major roadblocks to running a program like Row New York.
"You have to sit down with the people who are familiar with the city or the town and say, "Okay, how would kids get to us? What are the hurdles? What are the options? Are our kids going to need to know how to swim? Are our kids going to need a snack when they get here because school lunch isn't edible and they haven't eaten since 7:00 and it's 4:00?' And you go through all of these questions and all of these hurdles and, one by one, figure out the answers.
"I don't want to make it sound like it's so easy, but those parts aren't actually that hard. That is just logistics, and can be solved with resources, and with money. There are other elements that can make it trickier, but in the conversations I've had with people around the country, I would say it's doable anywhere."
"It Can Make You Faster"
Kraus believes that even clubs that are historically focused mainly on top-end competitiveness can pull off and benefit from outreach to young people who might not otherwise find their way to the boathouse.
"You have to take the steps to make it happen, but it's not just the right thing to do but, actually, it can make you faster," she said. "You can simply say we're doing this outreach and isn't that so nice, but you're actually missing a lot of talent, in my opinion, if you're just looking at all the same places."
The New Boathouse - Rowing and Learning in One Place
The new boathouse, which is to be called the Row New York Community Boathouse and Learning Center, will increase training space, include upstairs classrooms and work space, and develop the surrounding area into a park-like setting that is open to the public. The design is being done pro bono by the architects Foster + Partners with Bade Stageberg Cox, and has been featured in Architectural Digest.
"After all these years, we'll finally be able to co-locate the rowing and the academic programs," Kraus said. "So kids can come and get help finishing a paper that's due tomorrow, or get help from a math tutor for a quiz they have coming up, and then get on the water."
To date those programs have been run in YMCAs and in school lunchrooms and classrooms.
The building will also be accessible, which will support Row New York's veteran's rowing programs, as well as a program for girls with disabilities, which is run out of the Flushing boathouse at present.
"This boathouse would allow us to finally run adaptive programs in Manhattan, because the building will be fully accessible," Kraus said.
The project is fairly complex, involving as it does the sculpting and creation of park land; bringing in electricity, plumbing, and cable; water access; and a location on city land controlled by the Parks Dept.
"Somebody had said 'It's going to take you millions of dollars and many years before you break ground,' and I said, "That's not possible,'" Kraus recalls. "Now I know that is absolutely how it goes. It involves many, many, many, many levels of approval and working with different agencies and working with the community board; environmental assessments and the marine infrastructure were also a part of it. We can't just plop this boathouse down in the park. We need to redo an entire city park so we can create a community dock, and we also wanted it to be accessible.
"I really don't have words for how complicated it is, but it's also been really interesting and exciting."
Kraus notes that not all similar projects end up benefiting under-resourced communities.
"I think it's going to be a really special building because it is hard to find another building in New York City that's been designed by a world-famous architect to be used predominantly by young people of color and people from low income communities in New York City," she said. "We're excited to lean into that and to say that our kids and our community really deserve this building, and it's going to outlive all of us, let's hope."
The groundbreaking on the new building is currently slated for June 2021, although there is still plenty to do before then; for one, the current boathouse must be moved from the site (Row New York Chief Development and Communications Officer Janice Holzman noted that the Sharp boathouse is for sale, for those interested).
Additionally, the fundraising campaigns continue, with naming opportunities still available; folks interested in donating or helping should contact Holzman at this link.
To see more of the boathouse and grounds, see the Web site dedicated to the project at http://www.rownewyorkboathouse.org/