2009-04-10 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

Sebago members, circa 1940. Sebago members, circa 1940. The sands may shift in Rockaway, but there are many things that endure. Among them are the scores of not-for-profit groups that devote themselves to improving the quality of life here on the peninsula. This new column, entitled "Rock Solid," is intended to showcase some of these groups and their leaders. The stories are about organizations and people who make a difference—not necessarily the ones who get the plaques and certificates and appear at the head of the parade route. I will try to tell the stories of the ones who don't always seek the limelight—those who might not spend much of their funds on publicity agents or journal ads, but who deserve accolades and support from us because they are so effective. In some cases, as in this first column, the groups could be located off the peninsula, but may be featured if they serve our residents.

I am writing this column with several motives—all of which I will share, since transparency, a passion of mine since my days as a publishing lawyer, seems to be much in vogue of late. First, the writer inside of me likes to come out now and then. I graduated from Northwestern with a bachelor's in journalism in the heady days after Watergate, and enjoyed my reporting internship at a storied midwestern daily newspaper, but instead turned to government service and law school, eventually scoring a judicial clerkship, then a high-paying job on Wall Street. Back in that day, the firm I worked for had some great "solid" clients, like Drexel Burnham Lambert and A.I.G. (My teen-aged children would follow that with an L.O.L.!)

Some of Sebago's most active paddlers, summer 2008. Some of Sebago's most active paddlers, summer 2008. My public-spirited side was never fulfilled by Wall Street work, so I threw myself into raising a family coupled with not-for-profit management and consulting for major corporations, and serving as a mediator, arbitrator and program administrator for a prominent dispute resolution consortium. Eventually, three to four hours of commuting from the Rock made these job options seem less attractive, so I sought work here on the peninsula.

Presently, as an advertising sales representative for The Wave, I travel around the peninsula all week long, meeting with business people and nonprofit leaders. I hear about lots of great things happening, and would like to share this information with readers. I would also like to hear comments, advice and questions from readers about non-profit groups serving the peninsula. All those who contribute their time and money want to see it spent wisely, and this column is a way to feature worthy groups looking for donations, new members and volunteers.

Having worked with many groups on the peninsula over the past decade, I feel I have a useful perspective on the issues. I assisted two local homeowners associations as block captain and board member, developed the Parents As Arts Partners grant program at PS 114, and served as a PTA officer. Later, I was privileged to teach youngsters here in the neighborhood for about three years as a member of the New York City Teaching Fellows Program.

In addition to my work for The Wave, I am active as a lay leader at First Congregational Church, and occasionally conduct bike tours on the history and natural features of the peninsula for the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. I am also a member of the first group I will write about in this column: The Sebago Canoe Club. Sebago Canoe Club The Paddling Pros of Canarsie

The first thing you notice about these guys (and gals) is that they invariably accomplish whatever they set out to do. The leaders of the Sebago Canoe Club are sturdy, reliable troopers of the first order. Just give a call for volunteers for a good waterfront cause and they will show up in a cavalcade of vehicles, with trailers or car-tops holding kayaks, canoes, paddles and (of course), life vests. Safety consciousness is another of the club's hallmarks, right up there with reliability.

The next trait of this group is an unquenchable spirit for adventure and fun and the desire to pass it on to others. Don't get in their way as they haul watercraft off the vehicles and begin arranging them for launch. Once in the water, just try to keep up with them, if you are a beginning paddler, like me. This can be a bit intimidating, if you are trying to acquire basic skills, while these journeyman are somewhere over yonder, flipping their kayaks in the water, practicing their "wet exit" prowess! It's even more daunting if you are hesitant to acquire your nascent safety skills in the immediate vicinity of the club's Paerdegat Basin dock, which, unfortunately, lies adjacent to the Canarsie combined sewer overflow. You certainly don't want to practice your wet exit skills for the first time during a Saturday morning open paddle if there was a heavy summer thunderstorm the day before!

It took a long time for Sebago Canoe Club to arrive at this moment of great success. Founded in 1933 by a group of guys (and there were only men in the club at its founding) with a love of canoeing on Lake Sebago in Harriman State Park, the club has grown over the years to hundreds of members of every sex, age, race and national origin you can imagine. Although kayaks are the most popular watercraft at the moment, Sebago has members enthusiastic about sailing, canoeing and rowing, as well. Their very active website and the Sebago Blog facilitate an almost daily stream of emails among its members, scoping out and sharing tips on the best local activities, on the water and off! Anyone for seal watching in January? Bring your drysuit and we'll meet up. How about a moonlight paddle in July? Be sure you have LEDs for your boat, and we're on. The barbecue grill at the clubhouse will be fired up after the paddle's over. Wine will flow and the favorite stories will get rehashed. Most members hail from Brooklyn or Manhattan, but there is a contingent of members from Rockaway, as well. And Sebagoans love to come to Rockaway. A Saturday paddle to The Wharf for lunch is a favorite. Someone will volunteer to check the tides and get back to everyone who's interested. If 20 students from Kappa VI are hoping to paddle in Bayswater Park by week's end, no problem. The Sebagoans will be there to help at 3:00.

All summer long, the club members open their facilities to the public and patiently introduce many total novices to the sport of kayaking at weekly free open paddles on Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings. All you need to do is show up with a hat, a water bottle and some sunscreen. They will provide you with the kayak, the life vest and the camaraderie. Young people attending summer camps in the area also visit for weekday paddles, under the watchful guidance of Sebago's senior members. And the club assists with kayak skills training for novices in some of the city's public and private indoor pools. (The NYC Aquatic Center at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens and the New York Sports Club at Spring Creek near Starrett City, Brooklyn are among the first pools in the area to "dip into" this activity.)

For those who get hooked during an open paddle and decide to join, as I did, the annual membership fee (about $275 for an individual) gets you a membership in the American Canoe Association, subscription to "The Paddler" magazine, and the ability to participate in any club activities at your skill level, using the club's kayaks, canoes and life vests, both at the club's dock and clubhouse in Canarsie, Brooklyn and at Lake Sebago (in Harriman State Park, Orange County). Training and boat storage are offered for an additional fee, at the lake or the clubhouse. And there are cabins for overnight stays also available with your annual membership.

The club's leadership does a good job of managing the finances. An elegant benefit party and silent auction held at the Prospect Park Boathouse in October raised funds for a new dock at Sebago and showcased the skills of Sebago's vastly talented membership. A chef-member planned and executed the catering. Intriguing items were donated for the auction by other members. Grant-writing and other fundraising efforts by Sebago have raised over $125,000 for improvements at their one-acre Paerdegat Basin facility, a former encampment of the Canarsie Indians that is now leased from the New York City Parks Department. The club is proud to note that public funds were not tapped to improve the Sebago site. A new dock is being dedicated at the club's season opener on April 19. Sebago is under the leadership of Commodore John Wright. In May, watch for their open house, head out to Canarsie, and join them for a paddle!

Comments and suggestions about this column are encouraged. To make a private comment, you may email me at: vrc@rockawave.com, or call 718-634-4000 ext. 32. If you wish to comment publicly, feel free to use the "Add Comment" feature on the website of The Wave, www.rockawave.com, which appears at the end of each article. Let's get a dialogue going!

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