paddling underservedBy Conor Mihell

Chicago-based sea kayaker and social worker Andrea Knepper will never forget the day 14-year-old Zorbari Nwidor first sat in a kayak at career day in a school gymnasium and flashed a grin. The next summer, Zorbari, whose family immigrated to Chicago from Nigeria when she was 3, paddled with Knepper for the first time. Since then, she's become the youngest North American paddler to achieve the British Canoe Union's Coach 1 certification—and also one of fewer than 10 black women to have received this award. Zorbari's paddling skills and enthusiasm are testaments to the significance of Knepper's nonprofit Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT), which has been introducing paddling underserved youth to outdoor activities since 2007.

Knepper has long been intrigued by the potential of blending her passion and profession—sea kayaking and social work—through the practice of "adventure therapy." She caught a glimpse of the outdoors' ability to influence people in "seriously transformative ways" as a sea kayak guide in the Midwest. Then, while working at a community mental health center in Chicago, she discovered that simply taking one of her teenage patients for a walk outside made him more responsive. "Being outside and moving allows kids to talk about their fears and hopes," she says. "It was the same thing that was happening with some of the participants on the trips I was guiding. I started to think we could do this on purpose."

Knepper quit her job at the clinic and started researching adventure therapy programs in 2004. Chicago Adventure Therapy became incorporated in the fall of 2006 and launched its first pilot programs in the summer of 2007. She partnered with local agencies for gang intervention, homeless and street-based youth, child welfare groups and others to offer "taster" programs in climbing and paddling. For many at-risk youth, kayaking with Knepper also introduced them to Lake Michigan. By 2010, Knepper was drawing over 300 kids and no longer had to advertise her programs.

"In 'traditional' adventure therapy, sport is the medium for another purpose," Knepper says. "It's really clear that paddling helps kids grow as people, but sport can also become a passion. They start getting excited about it. They want to build skills and technique, to learn about navigation and tides and currents and all the other stuff that goes into sea kayaking."

CAT01[2]While introductory programs remain the core of Knepper's work, she's focusing more on developing the skills of participants with an obvious passion for paddlesports—like Zorbari, who is now 19 and studying at Howard University in D.C. and working with Knepper for the summer. CAT attends trade shows like Canoecopia and has sent participants to the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium in San Francisco. Besides private donations, it has received support from Kokatat, REI, NRS, Dick's Sporting Goods and others in the outdoor industry. In June, Zorbari and two other CAT leaders in training embarked on their first overnight sea kayak tour at Grand Island, on Lake Superior's south shore. A group of six is traveling to the Pacific Northwest to do a five-day trip in the San Juan Islands in early August.

Over the past two years, CAT has partnered with Marquette, Mich.-based outfitter Downwind Sports and Detroit paddler Belinda Lee to organize the Gitchi Gumee project, an initiative to bring urban and inner city youth and adults to the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium on Lake Superior. For her part, Knepper says she's still shocked by how the paddling community has wholeheartedly accepted her participants. "They were welcomed not because they're underserved youth but because they wanted to paddle and showed enthusiasm," she says. "It was the same in San Francisco. It all had nothing to do with the obstacles in their lives.

"When we got back from our camping trip in June," continues Knepper, "they all said, 'Thank you for believing in me.' So many of our kids are pigeonholed by their backgrounds. People don't see the amazing skills they have, their talents and ambitions. They just see the things that have to be fixed. For me, paddling is the place where I find my greatest rewards. We can do the same for our kids."

For more information visit Chicago Adventure Therapy. 

paddling underserved