The Community’s First Surf School Experience
Nestled in the urban sprawl of Pittsburgh’s East End, The Mount Ararat Community Activity Center provides innovative programs and experiential learning to the area’s families and youth. Earlier this summer, the Center debuted a new program for a select group of students, part of which involved teaching them to surf in whitewater rivers. While surfing might be the last thing many think of in this landlocked region of Pittsburgh, that is exactly what Mentorship Director, Dr. Charles Howell, has brought to the Center through partnership with a local organization called, First Waves. The importance and impact of the program, however, goes far deeper than just riding waves.
Despite being touted as the city of three rivers, most of Pittsburgh’s youth have little or no knowledge about its waterways and the watersheds that create them. This disconnect fosters a lack of understanding about how clean water is a vital resource for the community’s health and wellbeing. After completing a successful standup paddleboarding program with Mount Ararat youth at Moraine State Park in 2016, SurfSUP Adventures founder, Ian Smith, and Dr. Charles Howell began planning an intensive program that would fuse an education about watersheds with engaging experiences in river surfing and whitewater rapids. The program’s concept was to cultivate an understanding about how water connects all of us, what we can do to protect it, and how to safely enjoy these watersheds. Youth participants would also be challenged to work as a team, adapt to dynamic new environments, and overcome their fears to succeed.
In addition, the program teamed up with Phillip Thompson of 33 and 1/3 Media to introduce filmmaking, photography, and digital media concepts so youth participants could document their experiences both in the classroom and on the water. They were given the tools they needed to take amazing photographs and practiced using professional DSLR equipment on the Mount Ararat campus, throughout the neighborhood, and on the water when the team ventured to Johnstown to take on the waters of the Stonycreek River while they learned to paddle and surf. Over the course of the three-day experience they would trade cameras for paddles, learn to balance on boards, and even identify what watershed they live in through an online mapping system. The result was the first ever Mount Ararat Surf and Film School.