Stuffed with chips and snack bars, stoked with adrenaline and armed with an extra pair of tennis shoes, the teenagers climb into a skinny boat on Tempe Town Lake each week and learn life skills.
"Don’t let the boat control you!’’ coach Omar Hassan barks through a megaphone. "Take your time coming up. Nice and slow."
Teamwork. Discipline. Focus. Communication. The teens are required to keep the eight-seat racing shell moving down the lake at an even clip and please the coaches.
By rowing on the lake each Wednesday, however, these boys also are pleasing their probation officers and juvenile court judges.
"The skills they are learning in rowing are some of the skills we want to teach them in life," said Rebecca Bond, coordinator of Tempe’s Juveniles Achieving Greatness program, which targets at-risk kids.
Tempe teens 14 and older are referred to the program by probation officers. It’s voluntary, "but I tell them it looks really, really good in front of the judges," said Kathryn Arnott, a juvenile probation officer.
The program combines a team-building sport with the mental gymnastics of a one-hour life-skills workshop, infusing the afternoon with positive role models and helpings of nachos, sub sandwiches and cookies. The program is in its fourth year, funded through a five-year federal grant administered by the Governor’s Division for Children.
"It gives me something to look forward to," said Carl Zender, 15. "This is the highlight of my week."
The teens are on probation for various offenses, including assault, burglary, drugs or disorderly conduct.
Some of the boys have completed probation but are back for a second or third season of rowing. Others also participate in the program’s weekly judo program. There’s a third program for girls.
For many of the boys, it’s their first opportunity to be part of an organized sport.
"We really don’t know any other people who row," said Brendan Taylor, 17. "And I have people here to support me all the time."
Last week was the crew’s first in the eight-man shell. Three of the boys are new to rowing and the group had been practicing on a training boat, which looks more like a small barge. In their baggy jeans and T-shirts, they carried the 200-pound vessel from the boathouse to the water and climbed aboard.
Helping steer and coach in the coxswain’s seat was volunteer Debbie Hammerman, a social worker at South Mountain High School. Hassan, a member of the Arizona State University crew and part-time instructor for Tempe, rode alongside in a pontoon boat.
The coaches start the boys out slowly, then give orders that eventually set their oars moving together for 20 long strokes, the shell gliding along the water. A few missteps happen along the way, but overall Hassan is pleased.
Alonzo Jones, assistant dean for student life at ASU, launched into a discussion that melded self-confidence, school relevancy and motivation. By tapping into their strengths, such as skateboarding and music, Jones illustrated how they can succeed at anything they apply themselves to.
"You have a responsibility to your 25-year-old self," Jones said. "School is a means to your future, and you have to realize that the future is coming."