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Refugee children gain canoeing skills, self-confidence thanks to Splore

PARLEYS CANYON — The reservoir imparts its own life lessons.

Sometimes, the water is glassy and canoes glide easily across the water.

Other times, the water is choppy and paddling and steering the boat become a chore.

Like Friday morning.

“It’s a workout,” said 13-year-old Iman Musse, a refugee from Ethiopia.

After four canoe outings with Splore, a Utah nonprofit organization that provides recreational opportunities to people with disabilities or other disadvantages, Iman said he feels comfortable enough in the waters of Little Dell Reservoir that he enjoys canoe races and playing tag.

His older brother, Ali, said he was hesitant to take out the canoe his first outing a month ago.

Over the past few weeks, a quiet confidence has conquered the reticence.

“It’s fun now. But today, the waves take you and the boat is a little shaky,” Ali said.

The Musse brothers are among a group of refugee and immigrant children served by Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center who are taking part in recreational programming provided in a partnership with Splore.

Splore is a Utah nonprofit organization formed in 1977 that enables people of varying abilities to experience outdoor recreation and “experience the dignity of risk,” according to its website.

Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center in the Millcreek area opened last fall. It provides a safe place for children to come for help with homework, to improve their English skills, eat a snack or take part in other supervised activities.

The center also offers programs for adults, such as English classes, parenting help and instruction on healthy eating. It primarily serves families who live at the Sunnyvale and Driftwood apartment complexes.

Beyond building confidence and competence in handling a boat or learning to ski, the recreational opportunities provided by Splore have important social benefits, said Kevin Niepraschk, who works with teens and elementary school-age children at Sunnyvale.

“It helps them to connect with others from their home countries and learn what it means to live in America,” Niepraschk said.

Canoeing also teaches teamwork, which comes in handy when one has to paddle into the wind to reach the shore.

Reaching a level of comfort in the water is a gradual process, said Krista Kowalchik, a summer intern guide for Splore.

"You really start to learn how maneuver a boat after four weeks,” she said.

Learning to recreate safely is one goal, Kowalchik said.

“The biggest thing is self-esteem and confidence,” she observed.

For soft-spoken Somalian refugee Abdio Muhumed, 12, the outings are also the stuff of childhood summers: water fights, playing in the sun and making friends.

“It’s just fun,” she said.