Boats Building Kids

As published in Allegheny Magazine, Spring 2014

Travel north on Interstate 79 as far as you can go and you’ll find yourself on the Bayfront Parkway in Erie, Pa. After passing a steady backdrop of highway billboards and exit signs on the drive, this view is much more scenic. Presque Isle Bay lies to the north with boats dotting the landscape. Soon you’re on Holland Street, home to the Bayfront Maritime Center, the legacy of Allegheny College alumni Amy and Rich Eisenberg.

Bayfront Center
Photo by Kathleen Prosperi

The facility’s campus is located on the water’s edge and is eye-catching. After passing through its secure entrance, you walk along walls of windows installed to engage the outside world. Boats hang from the ceiling to showcase history and accomplishments. Open spaces accommodate learning and creativity. Throughout the school, classrooms of every imaginable configuration exist, from the traditional to a fully equipped boatbuilding shop and the floating classrooms – the Bayfront Maritime Center’s vessels.

Amy describes it as the “new face of education.”

It’s hard to package the center neatly, to describe it down to a tee – what it does is so much more than its various educational and vocational programs suggest.

Rich’s words to describe what happens here, “boats building kids,” seem to say it best.

In 16 years of existence, the center has worked with approximately 16,000 people, mostly youngsters, to create positive learning experiences through sailing, building boats, studying navigation, learning about the environment, and rowing and paddling, while enjoying scenic Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie.

Rich is executive director of the center, and Amy is the executive assistant. They took a roundabout course to find their way here, some 45 miles north of Meadville.

Rich and Amy Eisenberg

After Allegheny, Rich ’75 and Amy ’76 headed west, looking for adventure. Upon landing on the coast in northern California they worked for a short time in Sausalito and San Francisco, Rich in a boat yard and Amy in an art gallery. Rich and Amy’s work moved north into coastal Marin. Rich’s employment evolved into various construction projects, most notably the award-winning Briarcombe, featured in Fine Home Building and Sunset magazines. Amy continued to focus on her artwork while employed in various boutique craft cottage industries.

Several years later, the couple visited friends in Maui, Hawaii, and found a new home. Rich ran projects for Greater Pacific Construction, primarily commercial medical remodeling, but also a few custom homes and other special projects. Amy managed the Maui Crafts Guild and Maui Child Toys and Books. Then, in 1986, their son, Ivan, was born.

“A new family and quality schools eventually led us back home to Western Pennsylvania,” says Rich. That was in 1994, after 11 years on Maui.

A few years later, their second “child,” the Bayfront Marine Center, was conceived and born.

“I met Jim Stewart, co-founder who left the center in 2004, and we started talking about how kids never get out onto the water, they never get a chance to experience it, to use it,” says Rich.

“Our son had been enrolled in the sailing school at the Erie Yacht Club at the time. We wanted to give opportunities to kids who couldn’t do that, to create ‘The People’s Yacht Club,’” Amy adds.

Bayfront Center
Photo by Kathleen Prosperi

The center has evolved since then. A lot. In 1998, it started out in a temporary pole structure on the deserted Holland Street Pier that was built to outfit the Brig Niagara. When that sailing ship moved to another mooring in Erie, the Bayfront Maritime Center began. The center finally got its permanent home in 2003, a Western Pennsylvania Port Authority Building constructed specifically for the center and its innovative programming.

Amanda Loose, Project SAIL coordinator, reflects: “When I first started here, we were pouring concrete at the old McAlaster building [the second location]. I’m amazed at how much we’ve grown. Now, we have more staff, kids and community involved … people are more aware of what we’re doing.”

Finding a place to settle down was instrumental in allowing them to expand as an actual school, giving Rich and Amy an opportunity to use their Allegheny educations as a guide.

“I am somewhat of a non-traditional learner myself, and the small class sizes and individual attention I received from some of my professors at Allegheny helped prepare me to think outside of the box, and to develop an educational approach that utilizes non-traditional classrooms and techniques,” says Rich.

Bayfront Alternative Education Program

The term “alternative education” can evoke a variety of images. Some, presumably, think of “troubled” kids being punished as a result of disruptive behavior and moved to an undesirable location to learn in a separate setting. Rich and Amy are challenging that stereotype, taking the status quo and turning it on its head.

This is why they started the Bayfront Alternative Education Program (BAEP), an innovative collaboration between the Bayfront Maritime Center, the Sarah A. Reed Children’s Center and the Erie School District, providing effective, safe and therapeutic learning opportunities for students (ages 15 to 18) in serious risk of not graduating. “These are the kids who are slipping, sometimes plummeting, through the cracks. We need to be able to reach each of these students, individually, in an effective manner that has meaning, and an application that they are able to grasp,” says Rich.

The alternative education program’s academic component is a blend of traditional and Web-based curriculum, hands-on maritime projects and other activities aligned with Pennsylvania Department of Education standards. It becomes all the more impressive when you realize it’s accomplished under the auspice of the “Sanctuary Model,” a treatment philosophy focused on helping injured children recover from the damaging effects of interpersonal trauma. A full system approach, it requires extensive leadership involvement in the process of change, people who are committed to creating a non-violent, democratic and productive community to restore children’s sense of safety and self-efficacy, while using the “7 Commitments of Sanctuary.” Mentors ask “What happened to this kid?” versus “What’s wrong with this kid?” Adopted for use with two nonprofits and a school district, the Bayfront Maritime Center is regarded as a pioneer in the field for taking this approach to learning.

On any given school day, about 25 to 35 students are on campus, although within a year, staff will see a total of about 90, which speaks to its relatively temporary nature: “Goals are created, short- and long-term, to get the kids thinking about positive future outcomes for their own lives. The primary goal is to have these students return to their home schools, be successful and graduate, ready for further education or employment,” says Rich.

Regular education classes are provided to Bayfront Alternative Education Program students on a daily basis through the Sarah A. Reed partnership.

For one student, Mike, the small class size and individual attention helps: “Science is one of my favorite parts of being here,” he says. “You get more help doing what you need to do.”

Chad Gustafson, a social studies teacher, talks about the process: “We try to modify student behaviors as best as possible … we go through a lot of adaptations. A lot of times, we meet in the middle and do the best we can. We … get the job done.”

Project SAIL

Project SAIL is the center’s other active program during the school year. Addressing the need for positive after-school activities, approximately 30 apprentices experience maritime-based educational and vocational training twice a week, for three eight-week sessions.

“After school is when teens are most likely to engage in risky behaviors and be subjected to violence and abuse,” says Rich. “Project SAIL apprentices are getting outside, sailing, rowing and learning to use real-world tools while engaged in boatbuilding and other construction projects, and improving their chances of finding employment through resume writing, learning how to fill out applications and interview preparation.”

Walk into the boatshop here and you can feel the buzz, an excitement for learning of which students aren’t yet aware they’re developing. This is where students, apprentices from both programs, use the center’s ShopBot CNC digital fabrication equipment to build boats. A majority of the center’s programming, especially in project SAIL, happens here.

The CNC machine is situated to the left, and a small group of teenagers checks out someone’s latest project. Proud of their work, students are quick to share. They design and build a plaque to take home – and an education to last a lifetime. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) components are woven into the daily training.

The center’s STEM Director Harold Rinn, maritime educator and CNC specialist, emphasizes its popularity: “They (students) almost fight over their time on the computer.”

In the boatshop, students work with their hands and think on their feet with Jodi Carpenter, educator and boat builder. They are working on their latest project, the St. Ayles Skiff, which will be part of Erie’s first-ever Community Rowing Program when finished this summer.

One vessel already is built, sitting across the room. Rich says that it takes about a school year to construct a 22-foot skiff. This group is seemingly on task, having completed three-quarters of their vessel.

“When they first come in, especially the students in BAEP, they say, ‘We’re never going to build this boat. You’re crazy!’ But then, as they gain confidence, they come up with good ideas … they’re able to problem solve on their feet, which is so exciting. They learn so much, they find out what they’re good at because there’s so many things that go into building a boat,” says Carpenter.

Small groups work together. Their current job is to finish some last-minute gluing and sanding. “They get a lot of satisfaction in seeing what their team has done,” says Rinn.

A teacher from East High recommended Project SAIL to Saraswati, a recent immigrant from Nepal. “It’s fun. My favorite part is working with Miss Carpenter building a boat,” Saraswati says.

“These are great kids. We have seen some miracles working with these young adults,” Rich says. “One now is in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, one is a sophomore in Maine Maritime Academy, one works with us and just passed the Coast Guard Masters License exams, others have been the first in their family to attend college.”

Former Bayfront student Eric, who is still in high school, is back to help.

“I found out about Project SAIL and asked Rich if I could come back to help. I know the stuff and how it works and can help someone if I see them doing it wrong,” says Eric.

For him, it’s just an easier way of learning: “I like doing hands-on work. I don’t like sitting in a class. If I have to sit there listening to a teacher talk or a presentation, I end up falling asleep,” he says.

Referring to both groups of students, Rinn adds: “I hope they show up in the summer time when we put it in the water. That’s the fun part.”

Fun, yet educational: an underlying theme to all activities at the center. Summer is the time when students get out on the boat, the “big math, science and social studies classroom” to which Rich often refers. His passion for the water and its educational benefits is evident.

In fact, the center sponsors two entirely different programs during the warm weather months: the Bayfront Migrant Summer Program and the Erie Adaptive Sailing Experience.

A summer school program of sorts, the migrant program provides much-needed educational opportunities to the children of migrant workers and recent immigrants who speak English as a second language. Focusing on language arts and literacy, the students (grades K-9) also receive instruction in math, computer skills, science and art while learning about water safety, boat handling, analytic thinking and teamwork, often in a boat they have built themselves.

The adaptive sailing program, EASE, is the only one in Pennsylvania, allowing community members, primarily youths, with physical and mental disabilities to sail independently on Presque Isle Bay. For some, this is a purely recreational activity that they can enjoy while their families network with others in similar circumstances. Some participants are learning the sport of sailing. All learn teamwork and perseverance.

During the course of a day, it appears as though Rich and Amy never stop.

“Rich has tremendous energy and a whatever-it-takes attitude. He is quite a phenomenon. He puts in endless hours and still wakes up happy,” Amy observes.

Klaus Kirschner, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, and Jodi Carpenter describe the couple’s partnership: “Amy is the yin to Rich’s yang. Rich is incredibly active, and Amy is the anchor that brings everything back to center. Together, Rich’s ingenuity and Amy’s foresight and pragmatism make for smooth sailing at BMC.”

The Future

The Eisenbergs are always thinking. In addition to the community-rowing program, the groundwork is being prepared to establish Veterans at EASE, a unique approach to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to readjust to civilian life. Using the forum of sailing as a therapeutic approach, Veterans at EASE will foster experiences of empowerment, mastery and successful social interaction, as veterans work together as a team to achieve reconnection, resocialization, and personal growth and hopefully have some fun, in the process. Veterans at EASE is modeled after a successful program operating in Charlestown, S.C., called Veterans on Deck. Veterans will sail on the center’s vessels along with Veterans Administration counselors and the center’s sailing staff. The sailing component of the program will begin this spring; the center continues to seek funding for this important new initiative.

“I think people want to do well, yet sometimes they just don’t know how to do it. BMC allows people to give back,” says Rich.

Those interested in helping can contact Rich Eisenberg at (814) 456-4077 or Volunteers are also welcome.

“It’s amazing to me how people are continually coming through the door to make it all happen,” he says.

For more information about the programs, please visit