In the mid-1700s, commerce along the Virginia waterfront -across from what would become the nation’s capital– depended heavily on the Potomac River. By the 1800s, busy wharves and shipyards lined the river banks in Alexandria, Virginia.
Today, most of that activity has been supplanted by speedier forms of transportation and little evidence is left of what used to be a bustling seaport. But, one organization –the Alexandria Seaport Foundation–has developed a creative array of programs to preserve the Potomac River’s maritime heritage.
The foundation is unique. It ties a love for the rich history of a river into a living ongoing program that deals with contemporary needs in the community–efforts that range from a boat building school that involves youth from disadvantaged areas to a river environmental science study.
This year the school and other maritime programs conducted by the foundation will reach 1,500 young people who will work with adult volunteers in learning boat building skills and marine environmental science. Over the past five years, the youth apprentices have constructed 75 boats.
“Our programs serve young people throughout the metropolitan region who need a positive path in life,” Joe Youcha, Executive Director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation says. “We’ve been able to give many youths the skills and confidence they need to succeed.”
Youcha takes great pride in the fact that the young boat builders–“kids that the system usually writes off”–have stayed in school, found jobs and, in many cases, gone on to college.
Youcha has a long love affair with boats. He grew up on the Hudson River. When he was five years old his father bought a small plywood boat from a local boat builder. From that point on Joe Youcha and boats became synonymous. And he’s turned that fondness for boats into something that works for an entire community.
In addition to the boat building school’s outreach to young people, the Alexandria Seaport Foundation involves students from the Washington, D. C. areas in hands-on environmental studies of the river. The data collected by the students is used by the Izaak Walton League and the Fish and Wildlife Service to help monitor the Potomac River water quality.
This season, the environmental science program is expected to reach at least 30 groups of high school and middle school students. This is in addition to ongoing lectures that the foundation conducts on maritime history.
The foundation’s efforts will be expanded when it establishes a Maritime Heritage Center on the waterfront in heart of Old Town Alexandria. The center will provide access to the river, a boat building demonstration, small boats for sailing training, rowing training and rental, an environmental science laboratory and maritime history resource center.
The work of the foundation and its director, Joe Youcha, is a prime example of how a local resource–a river–can be utilized as a multi-purpose benefit for an entire metropolitan area. Here is an effort that will advance the entire community including the environment, education and recreation while, at the same time, providing an unique and valuable program for young people.
How many rivers are there around the nation that could be similarly utilized to develop programs for young people and an appreciation for the environment?
Joe Youcha and his volunteers in the foundation have proven what can be done with imagination, hard work and love for a natural resource. Hopefully, those ingredients can receive the kind financial support that will make the program a lasting and living part of the Potomac River’s heritage.
[For more information on the program write to Joe Youcha, Alexandria Seaport Foundation, 1000 South Lee Street, Jones Point Park, Alexandria, Virginia 22314.]