EVERETT — Laden with bags for the night, 16 South Everett teenagers strolled a dock in Everett Harbor in the shadow of The Adventuress, a tall ship more than 10 times their age.
As the group huddled on the starboard side of the 133-foot-long vessel, First Lt. Gaia Wilson asked the crowd questions.
“How many of you have ever been on a boat? ” she asked. A few hands went up.
“But not like this,” chimed one, wide-eyed.
The teenagers boarded one at a time on Tuesday, creating “lines of fire” to pass their luggage from person to person and stow it in their cabins – the boys near the stern, the girls near the bow.
By Friday, after a loop voyage through Deception Pass, Port Townsend and Port Ludlow, they will have hoisted sails, weighed anchors and otherwise operated the vessel as official crew members. It’s an experience most of these kids couldn’t afford without the help of Connect Casino Road and Sound Experience.
The two nonprofits are partnering to host Everett at Sea, a hands-on marine and environmental science program that takes kids ages 12 to 17 on a four-day, one-night trip to Puget Sound. The trip costs around $13,600, or about $140 per child per day, but families don’t pay a dime. Instead, the costs are covered by a “No Child Left Inside” grant from Washington State Parks for programs that connect “underserved youth” to the outdoors.
“You could spread it widely, but that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” said Catherine Collins, executive director of Sound Experience. “It’s targeted” to deliver the program to children who can benefit the most, she added.
Connect Casino Road is a network of local non-profit organizations that work with families in the neighborhood of the same name, one of Everett’s poorest communities. The poverty rate is twice as high as in all of Snohomish County, said Alvaro Guillen, executive director of Connect Casino Road. More than a third of the children there live in families whose income is below the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would mean a total household income of $27,750 or less.
“These families are mostly immigrants and refugees,” Guillen said. “Many are newcomers who face barriers to succeeding and achieving their dreams, including cultural and language barriers, lack of access to health care, job instability and unaffordable housing costs.”
Guillen and her staff help families find resources, such as financial assistance, food banks or job training programs. The thought of sending their kids to a fancy summer camp on the water doesn’t usually cross their minds.
That’s what makes Everett at Sea special.
“This program responds to the dreams and aspirations of the community that goes beyond their basic needs,” Guillen said. “…It takes a moment of those struggles, those tough times, to get out of their school, out of their neighborhood, and onto the ocean to connect with other families, to socialize, to have fun, to learn, to get away from things that happen at home.”
Barbara Kleisinger sent her son Jony on the program’s first trip last week. A resident of Casino Road for 3½ years, Kleisinger said she heard about Everett at Sea from a family friend who works with Madres de Casino Road, one of the organizations in the network.
“I never thought he’d be able to do something fun like that,” Kleisinger said of Jony. “We don’t do a lot with the community, so I’m not aware of what’s going on.”
The partnership between Connect Casino Road and Sound Experience is “key” to involving families, because if a family is unaware of the opportunity, they cannot sign up, Guillen said. Her organization is already connected with families, and she knows how to communicate with them and help them navigate the app.
Jony, 13, said he had never been on a tall ship before.
“The first day on the boat was weird because everything was moving,” he said.
Eventually, he got the sea legs and “kind of did what the workers on the ship did.”
“The first time we hoisted the sails it was a little weird and hard to do,” Jony said. ” I did not understand anything. But after gaining this experience, I feel more comfortable on a boat.
Everett at Sea differs from other Sound Experience programs because of the families it serves. This is the only Sound Experience trip in Snohomish County. Most of the other groups are from Tacoma or Seattle, Collins said.
On these trips, student crews meet the Adventurer at a dock in Bellingham or Seattle, Captain Nate Seward said. With the Casino Road group, the ship travels to Everett to pick up students closer to their own backyard.
“We have to bring the ship here because of resource limitations for students,” Seward said.
Sound Experience also allows younger children to keep up with their older siblings, Collins said. By sending all the children in a family, it may be easier for a parent to say “yes”.
Aboard the Adventurer, the teenagers and their siblings help steer the ship. They have breakfast with the crew each morning and are assigned tasks for the day. As the journey progresses, their responsibilities increase.
“There are a lot of ships out there that take the kids…but on this one we’re very intent on teaching them how to do that,” Wilson said.
Children also receive lessons in environmental science on board the Adventuress. They learn about ocean acidification, then take water samples to test for acidity. They make microscope slides of plankton that they take directly from the sea, and then they talk about food chains and ecosystems.
“They see real science in context. They see communication and teamwork in context,” Wilson said. “These are all really direct and very hands-on experiences in a way that a lot of young people these days don’t have access to.”
Tuesday’s launch marked the second group of Casino Road teens to embark with Everett at Sea this year. Sound Experience sent a dozen additional students on a similar trip last week.
At the start of the program, the ship still feels “really big, and so does the band”, Captain Seward said. But at the end of the trip, the children are seated side by side at breakfast, even if there is room at the table to spread out.
“We create shipmates, which is such a powerful thing,” Collins said. “One thing I hear after that trip is, ‘I would never have been friends with that kid if I hadn’t gone sailing with him.'”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America staff member who writes on education for the Daily Herald.