EVERETT — Loaded up with overnight packs, 16 south Everett teenagers strolled down a dock at the Port of Everett into the shadow of The Adventuress, a tall ship more than 10 times their age.
While the group huddled on the starboard side of the 133-foot-long ship, first mate Gaia Wilson posed questions to the crowd.
“How many of you have been on a boat before?” she asked. A few hands shot up.
“But not like this,” one chimed, eyes wide.
The teens climbed aboard one by one Tuesday, creating “fire lines” to pass their baggage from one person to the next and stowing it in their cabins – boys near the stern, girls near the bow.
By Friday, after a trip looping through Deception Pass, Port Townsend and Port Ludlow, they will have hoisted sails, weighed anchors and otherwise operated the ship as official crew members. It’s an experience most of these children would not be able to afford without the help of Connect Casino Road and Sound Experience.
The two nonprofits partner to host Everett at Sea, a hands-on maritime and environmental science program that takes children age 12 to 17 on a four-day, overnight trip of Puget Sound. The trip costs about $13,600, or about $140 per kid per day — but the families don’t pay a cent. Instead, costs are covered by a Washington State Parks “No Child Left Inside” grant for programs that connect “underserved youth” with the outdoors.
“You could put it out widely, but that’s not what we are trying to do here,” said Catherine Collins, Sound Experience executive director. “It’s targeted” to get the program to the kids who can benefit the most, she added.
Connect Casino Road is a network of local nonprofits that work with families in its namesake neighborhood, one of Everett’s poorest communities. The poverty rate is two times higher than in all of Snohomish County, said Alvaro Guillen, Connect Casino Road executive director. More than one-third of the children there live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that would mean a total household income of $27,750 or less.
“These families are predominantly immigrants and refugees,” Guillen said. “Many are newcomers facing barriers to achieving success and reaching their dreams, including cultural and language barriers, lack of access to healthcare, job instability and unattainable housing costs.”
Guillen and his staff help families find resources, like financial assistance, food banks or work training programs. The thought of sending their children to a fancy summer camp on the water doesn’t usually cross their minds.
That’s what makes Everett at Sea special.
“This program meets the dreams and aspirations of the community that is beyond their basic needs,” Guillen said. “…It takes a moment from those struggles, those harsh times, to get out of their school, their neighborhood and out on the ocean to connect with other families, to socialize, to have fun, to learn, to get away from things that are happening at home.”
Barbara Kleisinger sent her son Jony on the program’s first trip last week. A Casino Road resident for the past 3½ years, Kleisinger said she learned about Everett at Sea from a family friend who works with Madres de Casino Road, one of the organizations in the network..
“I never thought he was going to be able to do something fun like that,” Kleisinger said of Jony. “We don’t do a lot of stuff with the community, so I’m not aware of what’s going on.”
The partnership between Connect Casino Road and Sound Experience is “essential” in getting families involved, because if a family doesn’t know about the opportunity, they can’t sign up, Guillen said. His organization is already connected with families, and it knows how to communicate with them and help them navigate the application.
Jony, 13, said he had never been on a tall ship before.
“The first day being on the boat was weird because everything was moving,” he said.
Eventually he got his sea legs about him and “kind of did what the workers on the ship did.”
“The first time we put the sails up was kind of weird and hard to do,” Jony said. “I wasn’t understanding anything. But after getting that experience, I feel more comfortable being on a boat.”
Everett at Sea differs from the other Sound Experience programs because of the families it serves. It is the only Sound Experience trip in Snohomish County. Most other groups come from Tacoma or Seattle, Collins said.
On those trips, the student crews meet the Adventuress at a dock in Bellingham or Seattle, said Captain Nate Seward. With the Casino Road group, the ship travels to Everett to pick up the students closer to their own backyards.
“We have to bring the ship here because of the limits of resources for the students,” Seward said.
Sound Experience also lets younger kids tag along with their older siblings, Collins said. Sending all the children in a family can make it easier for a parent to say “yes.”
While on the Adventuress, the teens and their siblings help run the ship. They eat breakfast with the crew each morning and are assigned chores for the day. As the trip progresses, their responsibilities increase.
“There are a lot of ships out there that do take the kids out … but on this one, we are very intentional about teaching them how to do it,” Wilson said.
The kids also receive environmental science lessons aboard the Adventuress. They learn about ocean acidification, then collect water samples to test the acidity. They make microscope slides of plankton they scoop right from the sea, then they talk about food chains and ecosystems.
“They are seeing the actual science in context. They are seeing communication and teamwork in context,” Wilson said. “It’s all really direct experiences and very hands-on in a way a lot of youth these days don’t have access to.”
Tuesday’s launch marked the second group of Casino Road teens to set sail with Everett at Sea this year. Sound Experience sent about a dozen more students on a similar trip last week.
At the start of the program, the ship always feels “really big, and so does the group,” Captain Seward said. But by the end of the journey, the kids are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at breakfast, even if there’s room at the table to spread out.
“We create shipmates, which is such a powerful thing,” Collins said. “One thing I hear after this trip is, ‘I would have never been friends with that kid if I didn’t go sailing with them.’”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.