Kayaking, planting gardens and using rain barrels hardly seem to be common activities in January, when temps in Cincinnati drop into the single digits, but that's exactly what "at risk" teens are learning — and teaching adults — through the Cincinnati Recreation Commission's Vision Trek program.
The mentoring program's clientele, as much as its approach, are unconventional, according to its director, Don Brannen.
"We'll accept anyone," he says. "We aren't afraid to work with kids who are difficult and who have been kicked out of community centers, kicked out of schools. They aren' mainstream, they need a little more special attention or they just need to have someone give them a second chance. Our staff is trained to build relationships so that we can try to keep these kids involved.
"It's a year-long program, and a lot of the kids stay even longer. Some of our kids become adults and stay with the program as volunteers."
What kids get, beyond that one-on-one attention, is a chance to develop some skills.
"We train the kids in any interest they want," Brannen says.
"If they don't come with an interest, we have things they can do. We train our kids to become kayak instructors, snow board instructors, rain barrel and rain garden instructors. They in turn work with adults, so there's a lot of mentoring that goes on. We also have job coaches who help our teens build resumes and get jobs. We try to get kids in colleges, do well in school."
The program doesn't have the money to formally track the number of children mentored and their accomplishments, but Brannen rattles off a list of accomplishment and kids from memory.
"We claimed last year the youngest kayak instructor in the world," he says. "He was 14, and no one challenged us. Now his younger brother, Tyshawn Dawson, is 14."
The brothers earned their American Canoe Association certification the same way anyone else can, by participating in any of Vision Trek's year-round 10-week kayaking class series.
The first "youngest" kayaking instructor to earn that certification under Brannen's tutelage is Laquian Dawson, a junior this year at Withrow University High School. In addition to starting his third year with Vision Trek, he's teaching adults how to kayak and build rain barrels.
"Usually when I get (taught) by adults I don't know things, but this time it was the other way around," Dawson says. "It was fun because this time it was the other way around and I got to teach people older than me."
The young man chuckles, but a more serious side to his work is how he is applying the new skills in the marketplace — a new business venture.
"He and his brother have started a rain barrel business in Northside," Brannen says. "They'll make them and set them up."
Even though Dawson has taken advantage of the professional coaching offered to the teens — resume writing, practice interviews, etc. — he hasn't yet found a job. While he continues to look, he's "doing rain barrels, snowboarding and skiing."
The adults who volunteer to mentor Dawson and his peers frequently come from the ranks of those who have completed the same classes. Brannen says the adults as much as the kids benefit from this program. He uses kayaking as an example.
"We have real adult who want to learn how to kayak, and we've got teens who have the skills how to kayak," he says. "Right now we're doing it at Over-the-Rhine Pool. It's inner city, so we can break down some doors there. Adults from suburbia come for this program and our teens, who are highly trained in kayaking, help train adults.
"We develop people skills. That's probably the biggest thing we do at Vision Trek. The kayaking ... is just a medium for developing people-skills."
To register for Vision Trek programs, including kayaking and rain barrel construction, call Don Brannen at 513-681-6046.