A girl stands up on a paddle board as part of First Waves

Making Waves That Matter

Photo: Rene Rosensteel/First Waves

How Pittsburgh-area youth benefit from First Waves’ paddling programs.

Under-served youth have a new champion when it comes to gaining confidence through being outside—especially when it comes to paddling, making films and helping preserve the Great Outdoors. That’d be First Waves, founded by Ian Smith as a group of organizations trying to reinvent education, mentorship and watershed conservation. Now in its eighth season, the unified, Pittsburgh-based grassroots nonprofit has helped countless children and teenagers launch standup paddling adventures, practice conservation, and even learn filmmaking fundamentals along the way. In all, First Waves has produced 10 short films and more than 40 youth workshops in Pennsylvania (soon elsewhere in the country), with last year’s documentary Contours honored in Canada’s prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. 

First Waves’ efforts have been especially noteworthy in its hometown region of Pittsburgh, where it’s received a Partner of the Year award from the Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization and was even televised in Proud Pittsburgh, documenting a river cleanup held with the Carnegie Science Center and Johnstown-area participants. The group is also now a proud recipient-partner of the Public Lands Fund, a move that will have immediate benefits, where Smith notes the particular impact in expanding First Waves and other programming to more communities and watersheds that need it most. “We’re ecstatic to work with the Public Lands’ staff for volunteer assistance,” Smith adds, “and are already finding great synergy in several other aspects of the project.”

Public Lands caught up with Smith to find out more on how paddling excursions (mixed with immersive education in watershed science and hands-on education in filmmaking and digital media) can help inspire and empower youth facing adversity. He outlines what’s in store for his outfitter-turned-nonprofit that harbors skills and opportunities its participants use to improve their lives—and to create lasting impacts on both their local waterways and communities. 

A girl hangs on to a paddle board with a guide as part of First Waves Photo: Rene Rosensteel/First Waves

PUBLIC LANDS: Why is standup paddling such a good activity for people to get outside?    

IAN SMITH: A main reason people fall in love with SUP is how inclusive it is. It’s a sport that spans age ranges, athletic abilities, and adventure thresholds. Its versatility has opened up different types of waterways across the country and made them accessible and enjoyable to a lot of people. There’s beauty in its simplicity and how easy it is to create a fun adventure no matter how little time you have. 

Tell us about First Waves. How did that come about?  

When I started [outfitter] SurfSUP Adventures, I really didn’t anticipate working with youth. It wasn’t until the park service here in Pennsylvania invited me to help teach some of their camps for underserved kids that I realized what an amazing opportunity it could be. The students were so enamored with the freedom of being on the water and the excitement that came with pushing their boundaries in the outdoors. On the drive home from that first encounter, I felt this upwelling of passion and I knew it was a calling for me. I continued to work with the park service and other groups for a few years, but I wanted to take it a step further. As a teenager, I had the chance to participate in multi-day conservation and fly-fishing camps that had a big impact on me. I wanted to take those same experiences and adapt them for paddleboarding and river surfing. I was also really passionate about the idea of introducing the art of filmmaking to give the youth a voice and to inspire others about conservation and the power of outdoor experiences. These ideas and passions took root and First Waves came into being in 2014 alongside a group of incredible partners and volunteers. 

What’s so important about youth mentorship and education?  

One of the most rewarding aspects of mentorship is watching the students’ self-esteem and confidence flourish as they overcome challenges and face some of their biggest fears. Whether that’s paddleboarding through a whitewater rapid or telling their story in an on-camera interview, First Waves provides opportunities for individuals to grow and achieve things they might not have thought possible. The importance of that confidence and belief in themselves spills over into the challenges of life and in making the world a better place moving forward. 

And you worked with Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Charlie Batch. What’s his organization all about and does it mesh well with First Waves?  

Charlie is the embodiment of a hometown hero in Pittsburgh. What he and his wife, Latasha, are achieving with their organization, the Best of the Batch Foundation, is incredible. Their mission is providing education and opportunity to underserved youth throughout the region—and their impact aligns perfectly with ours. The collaboration started last year with the inception of a new First Waves initiative in Pittsburgh. The program was comprised entirely of youth from the Batch Foundation who took part in conservation activities [from planting trees to performing water samplings] in Pittsburgh and Johnstown as well as completing their own documentary films about the experience. Based on the success and impact of the project, it will be a harbinger of growth for both organizations and allow us to provide programming for more youth facing difficulty in their lives as the relationship develops. 

When we started working with the Batches, I had no idea how hands-on both Charlie and Latasha would be. Charlie even showed up at our river surfing workshop and, of course, he was a natural. You can watch him on the wave in the new First Waves Pittsburgh film that just launched.  

How busy were you during the pandemic? 

We were really fortunate to be in a position to provide a safe and fun outlet for people when there were very limited options for group interactions and escapes. We definitely saw an influx of people who might not have thought about paddleboarding or river surfing in the past, and we were able to introduce them to this great passion which felt amazing. For a lot of families, friend groups and individuals working in isolation or in stressful situations, our eco-tours and events were a great activity where everyone could feel and act completely normal again and enjoy a level of social interaction they’d been missing. It was a great feeling to be able to provide that in really difficult times. 

Are you seeing increased demand from people to get outside? 

There’s definitely been an upwelling of people trying to maximize the outdoor resources that are right in their backyard. I think the importance of getting outside and realizing how many ways there are to enjoy the waterways has led to a rapid increase in participation in paddling and other outdoor sports. 

Any new programs for 2022? 

We’re set for our biggest season yet with a shift from local to regional programming. In addition to continuing with our flagship projects in Pittsburgh and Johnstown, we’ll also be launching programs that support youth in Cambria and Indiana counties. We’ve been fortunate to grow the footprint with some great new partners and can’t wait to keep that momentum flowing. It’s also our first year operating under our new parent organization, the Watersmith Guild, which will open up new opportunities for growth. 

Tell us a little more about the Watersmith Guild. 

Before this year, First Waves has operated as a collaboration with an array of partners, paddling organizations and nonprofits. Now, through our new parent organization, the Watersmith Guild, we’ll be able to operate more fluidly and expand our impact moving forward. The focus of the Guild is to inspire watershed conservation and improve lives through arts and adventure programming. We will be expanding on programs like First Waves and bringing creators, educators and athletes together to hone their crafts and utilize them for the improvement of water resources and the communities that rely on them. 

More Info: firstwaves.org 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.