Adding Adaptive and Inclusive Programs to Your Boathouse

summarized by David DeWinter
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Penelope Pate Greene – Co-Founder & Board Chair, North Star Community Rowing
Kris Miller – Co-Founder and Commodore, North Star Community Rowing
Tim Giarrusso – President and CEO, Human Technologies
Liz Greenberger – Founder & Board President, Row LA

The 3-Sentence Summary

To start a new adaptive rowing program, start with people over things: (1) internally, align your leadership 100% on the vision before you invest in building programs and (2) externally, partner with both the community you want to serve and the organizations already serving those communities, so it won’t feel like starting from scratch. Once you build momentum with the right groups, you’ll find it much easier to chip away at obstacles like using/creating ADA-compliant infrastructure and acquiring boats. Finally, expect to make a lot of mistakes and to fail a lot; pick yourself up after every mistake and keep trying.


0:29 – Introduction by Deb Arenberg. Each panelist will share their individual experience creating and building adaptive programs.

  • Penelope Greene – Co-Founder of North Star Community Rowing. Recreational therapist by training, she enjoys working to make rowing accessible to all
  • Kris Miller – Co-Founder of North Star Community Rowing. Loved sports from a young age, a physical therapist who wants people to discover a love of movement in rowing no matter their ability level
  • Liz Greenberger – Founder of RowLA. Made a career out of inclusion work.
  • Tim Giarrusso – Leads organization to create employment for people with disabilities, building a therapeutic sculling center for adaptive rowing

Penelope/Kris, North Star Community Rowing

5:01 Steps to add adaptive rowing:

  • Identify a need in your community
  • Find a suitable test boathouse. Consider
    • Transit to get to the boathouse
    • Accessibility from transit to the boathouse
    • ADA-compliant restroom
    • ADA-compliant access to the shore

7:25 Staffing challenges

  • A classifier can help you think through the needs of different people that could come to you. USRowing Classifier List.

8:43 Being a 501 (c) (3) allowed us to fundraise. We also established a 3-tier fee schedule – free (people who met free/reduced lunch program criteria), middle, and high (who subsidized free rowers).

9:52 We partnered with local organizations to recruit, and could recruit based on our networks as physical therapists.

10:56 Equipment needs to fit each athlete. Having people who are part of the adaptive community can also help you source this equipment. Modification is an ongoing process to fit the needs of each person, since those needs can change.

12:27 We had to build ADA-compliant access to the shoreline. It was a 3-year, 80-meeting, $80k project involving dozens of donors and partnerships to get the work done.

Liz, Row LA

14:35 Row LA has been around since 2009. We teach inner-city young women to row, provide academic tutoring and college counselor services, and help them get into college with scholarships or financial aid.

15:26 We are new to adaptive rowing. Invited to the Angel City Games – the premier adaptive sports festival in LA.

17:02 Our focus is on opening ourselves up, as individuals and as a team, to people with different abilities coming into your program. We want to develop a new program that people can trust.

20:44 Our next step is to build the program at our boathouse. We have some fixed-seat ergs and some singles with pontoons.

Tim, Rochester Community Inclusive Rowing

22:03 USRowing, specifically Deb Arenberg and the Freedom Rows program, has been instrumental in helping us build our program.

23:10 Mindset when creating a new program: there is no right/wrong. Given the unknowns of the environment you’re in, plot a course and commit to it.

24:18 RCIR is not a club. We are a sculling center. There are no members and no fees. All volunteer-based. We ended up co-creating the vision with the veterans we served; through them we understood the impact of being on the water on personal health, happiness, and healing.

25:52 Lesson learned: there are a lot of other programs going on for veterans (skiing, horseback riding, sailing, …), but once the trial concludes, veterans can’t afford them. We wanted to find a way to continue engaging veterans past any pilot program.

28:07 Sculling is a metaphor for life skills. Lots of pre- and post-row talk: “What’d you notice today?” “How can you take that home?”

29:37 Rowing is based on who shows up. We pride ourselves on getting someone new to rowing in a shell within 60 minutes.

Panel Questions

31:35 What lessons have you learned throughout the process of starting an adaptive program?

  • Penelope: Importance of community partnerships – park districts, the Y to provide swim lessons, centers where we could recruit from, local rowing clubs.
  • Kris: Partnerships don’t have to be rowing-related. YouTube has been very helpful, too (learning how to repair equipment).

35:02 What are the priorities when implementing an adaptive program?

  • Liz: (1) Make sure that your leadership is completely bought in; their attitudes will trickle down to the athletes. (2) The most successful programs celebrate ability differences.
  • Tim: The organization should be on the same page on what it means to be inclusive–that transcends rowing. Getting people aligned and energized is the top priority. Once they’re aligned, everything else comes down like dominoes.

39:06 What should the leadership structure be within the boathouse?

  • Tim: Leadership is not a structure. Leadership is a way of being and how you create a shared vision. The structure is just about how you divide up the work.
  • Penelope: Have a specific adaptive head coach to head your program. The needs are unique enough to have someone at the helm of all adaptive programming.

Audience Questions

42:39 Can you talk more about your collaboration with the VA?

  • Penelope: We had a pre-existing network that we could tap to work with the VA. We worked out a series of camps (learn to row sessions) with them, and they do have the budget to spend on these activities. During COVID it’s been very difficult due to lockdowns.

45:13 How do you recruit BIPOC representation?

  • Kris: We are actively trying to serve communities with people of color. It’s a hard thing when you’re in a very small organization.
  • Liz: Reach out to the parents of your BIPOC rowers to serve on your board – they’ll reach out into the community for you.
  • Tim: When you create environments that feel safe and respect people, you will attract the people you’re looking for. When you build trust with them, they bring their friends.

49:07 What is a classifier? What do we need them for?

  • Deb: It can be helpful to organize practice sessions but is not a requirement to start a program. Athletes get classified to know the event categories they can compete in at some regattas. About a 1-hour process. Row first! Then you can think about classification.

52:18 What’s your biggest breakthrough and biggest source of frustration with adaptive rowing?

  • Tim
    • Breakthrough: When we recognized “adaptive” applies to us as well. We have to adapt what we do to meet the athletes where they are. Example: using 5th-grade language and below so they don’t have to interpret or learn jargon on the first day.
    • Frustration: not learning this sooner.
  • Liz: Normally you take athletes and try to fit them into the program. Adaptive programming is about fitting the program to the athlete.

55:05 Closing thoughts

  • Kris: Even if you only have one person, you have a program. Just get started! When you make a mistake, just find another way through.
  • Penelope: Don’t limit yourself by what you own. Understand who you want to serve and see who’s serving; put them together.
  • Liz: We do this because we will become better people from it.

55:51 Contact info for speakers.

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