“I THINK IT’S CURIOSITY, SOMETIMES, AND NOT KNOWING WHAT’S THERE. THEY WERE PROBABLY HEARING THINGS WHEN THEY WERE YOUNGER AND DEVELOPED A PHOBIA OR A FEAR OF THE WATER… WAIT, LET’S LET THIS TRAIN GO BY AGAIN…”
Chevaughn Dixon, AKA Chev, is explaining to us why he thinks some of the youth he mentors struggle with their first time out on the water, when he’s interrupted for the second time by a passing train. It’s a snapshot of the life of an inner-city kayak instructor.
Chev, Director of the Yonkers-based Hudson River Riders, takes it all in stride. While he loves the peace and serenity that he gets from being out on the water, his work is very much defined by finding that peace in the midst of the chaos of the city. At Hudson River Riders, he provides access to the water to disadvantaged youth, many of whom don’t know how to swim, or have never been out on the water. Chev shares his passion for the water with his youth, and helps develop the next generation of paddlers through camps, clinics, and other activities. Chev loves to get kids out on the Hudson, coaching them through their first time out on a kayak. And while he can relate to the experiences of the kids in his community, his own paddling story began far away from Yonkers.
Chev’s first experiences with water were in the Carribean Sea, and the rivers of his native Jamaica. “Our rivers were never deep, so we were just hanging out by the river,” he says. “We were washing our clothes and our dishes there, and fetching water to drink.” Still, the water always filled him with a sense of wonder, and a curiosity for what it could hold and what it could carry. “I always thought the water was beautiful and I wondered about it – like how deep it was, how wide it was, and if I could get across it,” he remembers. “I saw community people fishing off the pier and I was curious what kind of fish was in there, and I also wanted to know if it had sharks. I also saw people paddling up and down the river and I thought that was awesome and I wanted to know more.”
When he moved to New York with his family at age 13 he traded the Carribean for the Hudson, the 315-mile river that flows from the Adirondacks into New York Harbor. And although his surroundings had changed, his curiosity remained the same. How deep was the Hudson? What lived in it? How could he get across it?
One day as a young Chev was standing at the fence by the river, he saw an older man kayaking by. Unbeknownst to Chev, the man was Gerry Blackstone, an influential member of the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club, and a founder of the then-nascent Hudson River Riders. Noticing Chev’s interest, Blackstone asked him if he would like to try kayaking. Chev said yes.
“When I first paddled, I was scared,” Chev recalls. “I wanted to, but I’d never done it, and when I went on the boat I was nervous; it started shaking, and I didn’t know what that was about, and I remember this lady was behind me and she shoved me out and she was like, ‘Go, go go! Paddle! Put the paddle in the water!’ And I just did it.”
That was the beginning of Chev’s 11-year involvement with Hudson River Riders, first as a program participant, then as a staffer, and now, as Director. His early experiences in the water helped to give him the empathy and perseverance needed to work with his youth, many of whom come to the program with fears and inaccurate assumptions of the river. “They often think the river is dirty or that there are dead bodies in there,” he says. “As for people of color in the City, they often think it’s a secluded space for white people and so they assume they cannot get access to it.”
To Chev, it’s understandable, and the more he works with his community the more he comes to see how he and his staff at Hudson River Riders can serve as an inspiration. “I can relate, most definitely,” he says. “I can relate to that with most people that come here from the inner cities that don’t have access to water or swimming at a young age, so when they finally get to it, it’s very difficult, it can be very scary, but when they see other people like them doing it, they realize they can do it.”
One such participant was Jada. “She was extremely afraid because she couldn’t swim so she started crying and didn’t want to get in the water,” says Chev. “She went in the boat with someone else, but she was like ‘Don’t let go of my boat!’ So I was with her the whole time.”
As Jada recalls, she couldn’t help imagining the worst. “I was scared that my boat was going to tip over because I’m not really the best swimmer and the water is really, really deep,” she remembers.
Eventually, after some deep, calming breaths, and some encouragement from Chev, Jada got the hang of it and started to see what kayaking was all about. “At first I didn’t like kayaking all that much,” she says. “But then when we took the trip down there and went across, I guess I broke out of that scared shell, and now I feel much better about it.”
To Chev, Jada’s story is an illustration of the empowering experience Hudson River Riders can provide their youth. “She now paddles on her own and looks forward to kayaking with everyone,” he says. “It has helped to build up her self-confidence and get over her fear of the water. This summer she is getting swimming lessons and she couldn’t be more excited to come back and paddle with us.”
That passion is what Chev shares with the youth he mentors, and to him, it’s what unites anyone who gets out on the water, regardless of race, age, class, or ability. Water brings balance to our lives, yet fills us with a sense of wonder and curiosity and adventure.
“I love the water. It’s a healing element and it makes me calm, it makes me think a lot, and it has humbled me,” says Chev. “Water adds value to my life because it allows me to travel in search of more water and has shown me the world from a different perspective. It allows me to build connections with my community as well. I encourage them to look at what being on the water has done for my life. It has changed my course and I have found pure joy and happiness in it. I try to get them to see that they can follow whatever path makes them happy as long as they are passionate about it, because that is what matters most.”