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A decade in, sailing group looks to new horizon

2007 for ALPs Charter School, where Eliasen and his wife Sara's children went. Steve Eliasen credits a rare alignment of adventurous ALPs staff members and perfect weather conditions for the day's initial success.

About 60 ALPs students learned how to sail that year. That number has since grown to a cumulative 10,000 students in at least six communities. Besides sailing in an O'pen Bic sailboat, kids can also try kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding and go on a keel boat.

The style of the O'Pen Bic makes it more fun to learn how to sail, Sara Eliasen said. Adults today who learned to sail as children might recall that most of their learning was spent bailing water out to avoid capsizing. The boats IYSO uses are open-ended in the back and therefore self-bailing, so students can focus on nailing down the concepts. And, there aren't a bunch of knots to tie or attachments to deal with.

That's a key piece of the introduction, as students can first enjoy sailing, then return to shore to learn the technical aspects of it, she said.

All fifth-grade classes in Oshkosh experience sailing in the fall, a partnership with the Oshkosh Area School District. Winneconne and Neenah fifth-graders get in on the fun, too, in the spring. The Oshkosh school district's after-school program Lighted School House, a leadership program at Oaklawn Elementary School and the Recreation Department's summer offerings all include sailing with IYSO. A science, technology, engineering and math program at Webster Stanley Middle School has students designing their own sails and even racing them in a regatta.

Julie Conrad, director of curriculum and assessment for Oshkosh schools, said teaching science or math concepts with the sailing component keeps students more engaged and gives them hands-on learning experiences, resulting in stronger connections to the material.

The day on the water with IYSO also gives every student a chance to experience Lake Winnebago in the same way, regardless of one's demographic. You never know who will discover sailing as their passion, she said.

Steve Eliason keeps an eye on the water as studentsBuy Photo
Steve Eliason keeps an eye on the water as students and instructors sail, paddle board and kayak at Menominee Park beach. International Youth Sailing of Oshkosh is in its 10th season of sailing. Over that time, the organization has introduced sailing and other recreational water sports to about 10,000 students in Oshkosh and other Wisconsin cities. IYSO Executive Director Steve Eliason, a member of the school board, hopes to embed sailing into Oshkosh culture as the organization looks to the future. (Photo: Joe Sienkiewicz / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
And, its benefits ripple far beyond academics, Sara Eliasen said. Student sailors are gaining grit, becoming quick thinkers on their feet and growing skills that will carry them through life.

Students might start the day with IYSO leery of the water, timid to try something so new or maybe even resistant to it altogether. The same students come out of the lake transformed, she said.

"It's empowering to a lot of kids," Sara Eliasen said, adding it gives them a sense of control and the freedom and courage to take a risk. She's seen bullies transformed into heroes while turning over capsized kayaks for their peers they might have otherwise laughed at, and shy students confidently step up to take the lead.

IYSO offers programming through private schools, Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services and even with senior residents at Bella Vista.

Geographic growth

IYSO set sail outside of Oshkosh, too, catching wind in Sheboygan, Green Bay, Shawano and Oconto, to name a few. Children participate through school trips, after-school programs and clubs, summer programs, recreation departments and more.

Steve Eliasen, who is also involved in Dr. Eric's Skate Club, an after-school ice skating club in Oshkosh, even started a ski trip in 2016 where he and students go to Mont-Tremblant in Quebec to ski in the mountains.

Sailing is in high demand in Green Bay after IYSO helped launch a program last year that quickly took off. Green Bay Sail and Paddle taught 250 students how to sail in 2016 and boosted that number to 2,000 for this summer. It's a partnership among Green Bay schools, Girl and Boy scouts, recreation departments, the YMCA and other organizations, said Wendy Townsend, project and program manager for the city of Green Bay. Organizers in Green Bay are following the Oshkosh format to incorporate sailing into school curriculum.

They've had such early success that Green Bay Sail and Paddle is offering classes for adults this summer in response to an overwhelming demand for it.

The efforts in Green Bay have good timing, too, as water cleanup efforts there will near completion in 2018. Sailing has been a great way to re-introduce residents to the water, as well as inspire them to take care of it into the future, Townsend said.

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