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Stonington-based NESS has made big impact in New London

New London — Getting out of bed on summer mornings is easier when Kerian Ortiz knows she'll be participating in New England Science & Sailing programs later in the day.

"I've learned to sail," said the 13-year-old Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School student, who will be a high school freshman at the end of summer. "We do fun things. I don't like to capsize, but I do like to sail. And we go kayaking and snorkeling, too."

Kayleigh Bolanos, also 13, and another participant in New London's Camp Rotary, which includes afternoon sessions with NESS at Ocean Beach Park and Greens Harbor Beach, said she looks forward to days that include activities hosted by the nonprofit, ocean adventure-focused NESS.

NESS has grown from a community sailing program started in Stonington in 2002 to a year-round educational organization that engages students in water-related, experiential learning designed to build confidence, teamwork and leadership skills.

While NESS is still home-based in Stonington, it has made a deep thumbprint in New London, with classes and programming at the city's middle school, Ocean Beach, Greens Harbor and Mitchell College.   

NESS assumed management this year of the free New London Community Boating program, which has been teaching city youth to sail for years, and blended it with marine science programming offered at Ocean Beach, including kayaking and snorkeling.

Last year NESS helped New London High School start its first-ever sailing team, and recently partnered with Mitchell College to expand sailing and water sports offerings for the community and Mitchell students. Working with NESS, Mitchell foresees development of a top-notch sailing program on the campus that will include a varsity sailing team and the launch of a robust water sports program.

NESS, which grew out of the community sailing program started 13 years ago at the then newly created Stonington Harbor Yacht Club, is now an independent nonprofit that taught 3,200 students last year. Almost half of them received some form of financial aid.

Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School recently received a grant to help cover the nonprofit's costs, but for years, much of the NESS programming in New London was free.

"We are an urban middle school that has this partnership that provides our kids and any kid in southeastern Connecticut opportunities that most adults would" love to participate in, said Alison Burdick, the Bennie Dover Jackson principal. "And we do it all year long, and we do it partly during the school day and after school, and it is everything that quality education is really about."

David Sugrue, the manager at Ocean Beach, had all kinds of superlatives about the park's partnership with NESS.

"It's one of the best programs ever at the beach," he said. "What they are doing in their classroom here, and Alewife Cove, is unbelievable. They have made all of Ocean Beach and beyond a classroom, and that is something that I have wanted to see for a long time. I have always wanted to see an educational component here."

Talking about city youth kayaking on the cove and snorkeling to collect specimens for aquariums, Sugrue said, "The best thing we can do is teach the kids stewardship. We need the next generation to take care of this place."

Spike Lobdell, the founder and president of NESS, said since its inception the nonprofit's core mission has never changed.

"Being inclusive was the first part," said the retired financier, who was at JP Morgan Chase for 27 years before joining XL Capital as CEO of Global Business Services. When Lobdell left Wall Street and settled in Stonington Borough, he helped to form the yacht club and spearheaded the community sailing program that started with 14 youngsters, some of whom had no affiliation with the club.

The community embraced the program, helping it to grow, said Lobdell, and in 2004, community sailing become its own separate entity, independent of the yacht club, except for members who still support it financially.

"That feeling of being inclusive was really the heart of it," said Lobdell. "But the next part, and this is important to who we are today, is experiential learning, hands-wet, getting kids on the water and underneath it.

"We are taking kids out of their comfort zones, and in taking them out of their comfort zones they are learning something about themselves that they might not have known before, and that is really important," he said.

Lobdell has been sailing since he was a youngster and earned his nickname in a sailboat. 

"All of us kids sailing wanted to sound big and terrifying," said Lobdell, who was named Michael by his parents. Lobdell's sailing buddies changed Mike to Spike, and the name stuck. Even his trading license on Wall Street lists him as Michael "Spike" Lobdell.    

In addition to Lobdell, who works full time and volunteers his services, NESS has 17 full-time staff, 30 seasonal employees and the support of seven AmeriCorps members at locations in New London, Stonington and Westerly. Nearly all its instructors are college educated, and many are ranked or skilled in their fields. Mark Zagol, who directs the sailing program, is a two-time Collegiate All-American sailor who spent 12 years as a collegiate sailing coach at the Coast Guard Academy, Merchant Marine Academy, and Old Dominion University before joining NESS about three years ago.

This summer NESS is offering more than 300 classes as varied as sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, marine sciences, fishing, surfing and power-boating.

With an annual operating budget of about $2 million, about 35 percent of the funding comes from full-pay or tuition programs, and the balance from grants and fundraising. Since 2012, NESS has given out $750,000 in scholarship programming just in New London.

"We used to like to say we would like to have program revenues cover 75 percent of costs, but, given who we serve, that's not possible," said Lobdell. "If we could get it to 50 percent, that would be great." 

In New London, students in the Camp Rotary program said NESS allows them to get in and out on the water, and to Ocean Beach and Greens Harbor, where some of them otherwise wouldn't be able to visit.

"We go kayaking and then we look for creatures, like blue crabs, green crabs and hermit crabs," said Lauren Lee, 13, who added that she's learned to sail, too.

"I want to try to paddle-board now," she said.

Twelve-year-old Langston Paige is in NESS programs for the third year and said, "It's really cool. I like it," adding that participating keeps him busy and out of mischief.

Adults and the middle schoolers involved in the Camp Rotary and NESS programming said many city youths would be at home or walking city streets otherwise. Camp Rotary was started in 2010 as an alternative to traditional summer school in the city and combines academics with field trips, college visits and NESS activities.

But NESS also does year-round programming with Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, and works with the Jennings Family Resource Center, Covenant Shelter, Drop-in Learning Center, New London Youth Affairs, and the city's Recreation Department, as well as other partners.

It has a full complement of year-round programming at its Water Street location in Stonington Borough, and seasonal activities, including surfing, at another satellite site in Westerly. Last academic year, more than 50 schools, including some as far away as Hartford and Providence, sent students to field trips at NESS in Stonington. It offers an array of programming for students who are home-schooled.

On a recent weekday morning in the borough, where NESS occupies two buildings and an over-sized waterfront shed, staff was readying young sailors in the summer program on their fleet of Optimist sailing dinghies. Fishing instructor Caleb Rose taught another group to tie knots and prepare rigs for bass fishing. More youngsters were making plans to collect crabs, clams, mussels and minnows and set up saltwater aquariums, while still others practiced finding their balance on paddle boards out on Stonington Harbor. There was even a surfing class discussing how to calculate the height of waves, before heading out to master surfboards.

Lobdell said safety is paramount at NESS, and a new focus for the organization may soon be teaching more students in New London how to swim. School, recreation and NESS officials all expressed concern that too many city youngsters are non-swimmers or uncomfortable around the water.

"We have sailing, marine science, adventure sports. Why not add swimming?" asked Lobdell.

About 2007, the sailing program was expanded to include a marine sciences component, added new opportunities and broadened its core values beyond inclusiveness to add "hands-wet learning," personal growth and stewardship.

"We take those core values and combine them with our educational mission, teaching science, technology, engineering and math," said Lobdell. "So it's a very full package that kids are learning, but they are also gaining self-confidence, and they are developing team-working skills and leadership skills."

In 2012, the independent community sailing program changed its name to New England Science & Sailing to better reflect what it was doing and the scope of its mission. Today, Lobdell is especially excited about the success of NESS programming with New London youth.

He recalled a time last year when a boy from the city was skippering a 35-foot sailboat and feeling really good about himself.

"The wind is in his hair and the kids in the boat with him are on the rail, and all of a sudden he calls out, "Hey man, I'm driving a boat worth $3,000," said Lobdell.

"And the instructor in the boat with him says, 'Oh no, Jason, this boat is worth $100,000.' "

As Lobdell tells the story, the boy immediately loses confidence and the boat rounds up in the wind, its sails flapping and the young skipper clearly frightened.

His instructor tells him, "'You can do it. You can drive this boat. We trust you, Jason,'" said Lobdell, and the boy responds, 'You trust me? Nobody trusts me.'"

His instructor assures him that the staff at NESS is confident he can handle the sailboat.

The boy smiles, regains control of the helm, and gets the boat sailing again.

"That is what NESS is about," said Lobdell. "Not just making kids proud of their environment and the water, but helping them develop self-confidence and leadership skills. We want them to come off the water and say, 'I feel like I can do anything.'"

Twitter: @annbaldelli 



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