Making Waves: First Waves SUP Program Benefits Pittsburgh Youth  


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Under-served youth in Pittsburgh are learning how to SUP, make films and preserve the Great Outdoors through a new program called First Waves.

Founded by Ian Smith as a way to reinvent education, mentorship and watershed conservation, First Waves is now in its 8th season helping under-served youth learn to SUP , practice conservation and learn the ins and outs of filmmaking. In all, the grassroots program has produced 10 short-films and more than 40 workshops for area youth in Pennsylvania, with last year’s documentary “Contours” honored in Canada’s prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Its efforts have been especially noteworthy in its hometown of Pittsburgh, where it’s received a Partner of the Year award from the Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization and was even televised in “Proud Pittsburgh,” documenting a river cleanup held with the Carnegie Science Center and Johnstown area youth.

first waves SUP
A participant getting her feet wet in the new program…
(Photos by Rene Rosensteel, courtesy First Waves)

Three local programs, in particular, are continuing to benefit area youth:

First Waves Pittsburgh: This program provides youth facing adversity with an immersive education in watershed science, filmmaking and paddleboarding. Students learn to recreate safely in Pennsylvania waterways and become conservationists by planting trees and performing water samplings. A hands-on education in filmmaking and digital media also provides an outlet for self-expression, and empowers students to inspire positive change within their community.

First Waves Johnstown: This program is dedicated to empowering underserved youth with skills and opportunities to improve their lives and create lasting impacts on watersheds in the Greater Johnstown Region. The program achieves this through educational workshops that create a basis for healthy and active lifestyles, watershed conservation, education in the art of filmmaking, and diversity in outdoors recreation.

First Waves Cambria: This is First Waves’ newest program dedicated to inspiring youth throughout Cambria County to make positive health and life choices. The project is a coalition of First Waves, the Cambria County Drug Coalition, UPMC Health Plan, and more. Through these partnerships, youth undergo a variety of workshops and programming including river surfing, the art of filmmaking, and exercises to cope with anxiety and avoid alcohol and substances.

first waves supPaddling Life caught up with Smith for the skinny on the SUP program

PL: Tell us about First Waves— how did that come about?

Smith: When I started SurfSUP Adventures, I really didn’t anticipate working with youth. It wasn’t until the park service here in Pennsylvania invited me to help teach some of their camps for underserved kids that I realized what an amazing opportunity it could be. The students were so enamored with the freedom of being on the water and the excitement that came with pushing their boundaries in the outdoors. On the drive home from that first encounter, I felt this upwelling of passion and I knew it was a calling for me. I continued to work with the park and other groups for a few years, but I wanted to take it a step further. As a teenager, I had the chance to participate in multi-day conservation and fly-fishing camps that had a big impact on me. I wanted to take those same experiences and adapt them for paddleboarding and river surfing. I was also really passionate about the idea of introducing the art of filmmaking to give the youth a voice and to inspire others about conservation and the power of outdoor experiences. These ideas and passions took root and First Waves came into being in 2014 alongside a group of incredible partners and volunteers.

PL: Why is SUP such a good activity for people to get outside?

Smith: A main reason people fall in love with SUP is how inclusive it is. It’s a sport that spans age ranges, athletic abilities, and adventure thresholds. Its versatility has opened up different types of waterways across the country and made them accessible and enjoyable to a lot of people. There’s beauty in its simplicity and how easy it is to create a fun adventure no matter how little time you have.

PL: What’s so important about youth mentorship and education? 

Smith: One of the most rewarding aspects of mentorship is watching the students’ self-esteem and confidence flourish as they overcome challenges and face some of their biggest fears. Whether that’s paddleboarding through a whitewater rapid or telling their story in an on-camera interview, First Waves provides opportunities for individuals to grow and achieve things they might not have thought possible. The importance of that confidence and belief in themselves spills over into the challenges of life and in making the world a better place moving forward.

first waves sup
First Waves, as well as its participants, is making a splash in getting kids outdoors.

PL: Tell us about working with Pittsburgh Steelers’ QB Charlie Batch…what’s his youth organization all about and does it mesh well with First Waves? 

Smith: Charlie is the embodiment of a hometown hero in Pittsburgh. What he and his wife, Latasha, are achieving with their organization, the Best of the Batch Foundation, is incredible. Their mission is providing education and opportunity to underserved youth throughout the region and their impact aligns perfectly with ours. The collaboration started last year with the inception of a new First Waves initiative in Pittsburgh. The program was comprised entirely of youth from the Batch Foundation who took part in conservation activities in Pittsburgh and Johnstown as well as completing their own documentary films about the experience. Based on the success and impact of the project, it will be a harbinger of growth for both organizations and allow us to provide programming for more youth facing difficulty in their lives as the relationship develops. When we started working with the Batches, I had no idea how hands-on both Charlie and Latasha would be. Charlie even showed up at our river surfing workshop and, of course, he was a natural. You can watch him on the wave in the new First Waves Pittsburgh film that just launched.

PL: How busy were you during the pandemic?

Smith: We were fortunate to be in a position to provide a safe and fun outlet for people when there were very limited options for group interactions and escapes. We definitely saw an influx of people who might not have thought about paddleboarding or river surfing in the past, and we were able to introduce them to this great passion which felt amazing. For a lot of families, friend groups and individuals working in isolation or in stressful situations, our eco tours and events were a great activity where everyone could feel and act completely normal again and enjoy a level of social interaction they’d been missing. It was a great feeling to be able to provide that in really difficult times.

PL: Any new programs for 2022?

Smith: We’re set for our biggest season yet with a shift from local to regional programming. In addition to continuing with our flagship projects in Pittsburgh and Johnstown, we’ll also be launching programs that support youth in Cambria and Indiana counties. We’ve been fortunate to grow the footprint with some great new partners and can’t wait to keep that momentum flowing. It’s also our first year operating under our new parent organization, the Watersmith Guild, which will open up new opportunities for growth. Prior, the program was fiscally sponsored by various paddling organizations, but now we have our own organization, which is huge.

PL: Tell us a little about the Watersmith Guild.

Smith: Before this year, First Waves has operated as a collaboration with an array of partners and non-profits.  Now, through our new parent organization, the Watersmith Guild, we’ll be able to operate more fluidly and expand our impact moving forward. The focus of the Guild is to inspire watershed conservation and improve lives through arts and adventure programming. We will be expanding on programs like First Waves and bringing creators, educators and athletes together to hone their crafts and utilize them for the improvement of water resources and the communities that rely on them.



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