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WIND IN THEIR SAILS: Inner-city kids get on the water thanks to unique program

A group of local sailors are sharing their passion for the sport by creating a non-profit organization that's helping underprivileged kids learn how to sail.

MIDDLEVILLE, Mich. — Sailors from West Michigan have galvanized to form a non-profit organization that's geared toward helping develop the next generation of sailors through a unique program that's getting inner-city kids on area waters this summer.

The Jolly Madison Sailing Club has launched its first year of making sailing accessible to 12- to 16-year-olds from all socioeconomic backgrounds by eliminating barriers to participation.

"This allows the kids to learn the sport of sailing and all that comes with it," said Bill Sleeman, Jolly Madison Co-Founder. "I started the program because my eyes were opened to all the barriers that are preventing inner-city kids from having access to sailboats, the lakeshore and area waters, in general."

Sleeman, who has decades of sailing experience, including participating in the Chicago to Mackinac Race, is committed to making this opportunity work.

"We've worked real hard to make sure that this just isn't a summer camp memory," Sleeman added. "We want [the kids] to be engaged in this sport and have the same opportunities that many of the other kids on the lakeshore have."

The program happens through a series of two-week programs for children from a variety of Grand Rapids organizations. Every day includes both classroom time focusing on STEM lessons and on-the-water time with certified sailing instructors in which students learn how to prepare and operate a sailboat on their own.

"Having this kind of exposure to the sport can be everything to these kids," Sleeman said. "For the ones that really buy-in, we've got plenty of other programs they can advance to."

Even though this summer’s classes are all filled up, Jolly Madison organizers have plans to expand the program going forward. Jolly Madison is working to get students future access to sailboats and bodies of water in order for kids to build on and grow their skills throughout the year. Leaders also plan to invite some of this year’s students back next summer to serve as mentors for next summer’s students.

"Sailing teaches leadership," Sleeman said. "These kids are having so much fun, they don't even know that they're learning."

Participating youth organizations include:

  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth
  • New City Kids
  • Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation
  • Madison Square Church

"Any organization that invests in inner-city kids, we'd like to have a conversation with," said Sleeman. "We'll bring this opportunity to them at no cost to them."

Sleeman says the organization currently finds itself $30,000 short of being able to finish this summer season.

Anyone interested in supporting Jolly Madison can find more information at jollymadisonsailingclub.org.

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