Parenting Teenage Girls Triumph through Crew


FRED LEBLANC

"Stick together! You can do it!" yelled coxswain Silia Vega, encouraging her teammates to bring the shell across the finish line. The eight rowers depending on Vega for direction wouldn't guess that the woman putting them through their paces with such skill and authority can't swim. Nor would the dozens of fans and media who crowded South Hadley's Brunelle's Marina August 25 to cheer Vega, and thirty-six other parenting teens from four states, in the first Young Parents Regatta. The regatta, which is expected to become an annual event, was the culmination of the Rowing Strong, Rowing Together crew program developed by the College and Holyoke's Care Center.

"I wanted to challenge the water," said Vega, who selected crew over many other extracurriculars offered through the Care Center. "It took me a long time to get into that boat," she said, "but now my teammates depend on me." Overcoming fears and developing leadership skills are just a few of the many benefits of Rowing Strong, Rowing Together, according to Care Center executive director Anne Teschner, who started the program in collaboration with the College's crew program in 1999. Since then, using College equipment, Holyoke teens have learned to row during twice-weekly summer sessions under the direction of MHC assistant crew coach Tessa Spillane ‘95. Rowing Strong, Rowing Together was modeled after a successful rowing program developed and led by crew Olympian Holly Metcalf ‘81 for at-risk girls in the Boston area.

In light of the program's success with the Care Center, Teschner and MHC intern Jenny Simon '02 were inspired to expand Rowing Strong Rowing Together and identified other potential partnerships between young-parent organizations and rowing associations. Now, there are five such pairings along the Connecticut River—from Norwalk, Connecticut, to Hanover, New Hampshire. All the programs, which formed the competition at the regatta, are supported by a $50,000 grant from the New England Women's Fund and are coordinated by Spillane.

"This group has inspired me in more ways than I can ever pin down," said Spillane. "All I know is that the regatta brought tears to my eyes on Saturday."

Spillane has spread some of her own inspiration, says Teschner, who sees the rowers learning collaboration and discipline that transfers to the Care Center classroom as a willingness to stick with projects. She notes that last year, thirteen of twenty-two Care Center graduates-many of them Rowing Strong, Rowing Together participants-went on to pursue college degrees at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

"Besides helping them feel really, really good, rowing gives these women a sense of their own power," Teschner said. "It puts them into a larger context beyond their neighborhood and city, lets them be with MHC staff and student volunteers, and shows them that there are many options for who they can be in this community." Frances Perkins Scholar Irma Medina '03, a Care Center tutor and rowing assistant, sees the same effects. She finds that exposure to MHC tells participants, "You're worthy, and nothing is out of your grasp." Medina plays the important role of translating Spillane's commands and pep talks for the Care Center's Spanish-speaking rowers.

Regatta participant Johanna Diaz was all smiles as she posed with teammates for post-race photos. "We wouldn't be able to row together if we didn't stick together," she said, reinforcing Teschner's claims that rowing combats the isolation of teen mothering and even bridges neighborhood and language gaps. Diaz surprised her family in July by choosing the six-week rowing course. Perhaps they won't be surprised next fall, when she plans to start choosing college courses at HCC.


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