SHIRLEY, NY – Shawn Dillon is a physical education teacher in the Longwood School District who has run an outdoor education club and an outdoor sports education class for 15 years. Its clubs help expand access to saltwater and outdoor sports on Long Island in a diverse neighborhood where school trips are sometimes students’ first experience kayaking, paddleboarding or mountain biking.
This summer, Dillon is expanding his efforts with a new nonprofit located on the bayside in Smith Point County Park in Shirley, called Experience Saltwater. He wants the new location to offer saltwater activities like kayaking and paddleboarding, and possibly eventually surfcasting, surfing and beach biking, to even more kids on Long Island, he said. he declared to Patch.
The non-profit organization is run entirely by volunteers and has many current and former Dillon students at Longwood. There are kayak and paddleboard rentals available to the public, at a range of experience and difficulty levels. A portion of the rentals are then used to sponsor free youth group outings, allowing more Long Island children to enjoy the salt water all around them, Dillon said.
This week, the group will release its first group of children, from a nearby religious group. Dillon hopes word continues to spread about his mission. Groups of kids from anywhere on Long Island are welcome to get in touch with him to organize a day on the water, he said.
In his programs in Longwood, Dillon has seen the impact that simply giving children access to opportunities to try new activities has had.
“I took eleventh and twelfth graders to Smith Point Beach who had never been to the ocean before. I had kids who had never learned to ride a bike who taught me said years later “the impact the programs had on their lives,” he explained.
“We want to give kids the chance to experience the salt water that surrounds them here on Long Island. We want to get kids out on the water.”
Dillon wants his model to break down barriers to entry for some community members to try sports, whether it’s a $30 cost to rent a kayak or even just lack of knowledge about what can be done on the water on Long Island.
“Some of the kids didn’t know you could camp at Smith Point or you could 4×4 on the beach, so the first step is just to raise awareness.”
At Experience Saltwater, kids as young as seven can ride a paddleboard or in a kayak, Dillon explained, and when adults or kids pay for a rental there, they can “try all the toys” and experiment with different equipment.
“I have 650 children in my Longwood programs, and that sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t…there are so many more children we can reach.”