June 9th 2014
UrbanPromise's BoatWorks program was the starting point for Camden teen Siani Burgess' love for rowing.
Siani Burgess didn't know picking up a canoe paddle would change the course of her young life.
She smiles and shakes her head when asked about a photograph of her on the water for the first time last year. In the picture, Siani looks a bit shy, even timid.
She sits awkwardly in a wooden canoe, but she smiles. She incongruously holds a powder blue umbrella — and a paddle.
A girl who grew up surrounded by the waterways that define Camden, Siani had not only never been on water, she didn't much like to swim, either.
Despite her height, basketball was a non-starter. A bit girly, she hates getting dirty and likes her hair and clothes just so. Tried soccer and karate — quit both after just a few weeks.
Siani had the umbrella with her on a trip with Urban BoatWorks —an experiential program that exposes city kids to the outdoors —because there was a drizzle that day on the Rancocas Creek — and "I have African-American hair!"
But the umbrella made going fast impossible.
"I was like that," she explains, emphasizing the past tense.
Something clicked that day, though. Siani put down the umbrella, grabbed the paddle with two hands, and put her arms, back and heart into making the canoe go.
She's been going since. These days, she rows as fast as possible on the water.
Siani was still reticent a few months later when she went to BoatWorks' hands-on, boatbuilding program.
The workshop teaches kids how to build boats from wood.
"I stand off," Siani says of how she reservedly approaches most new experiences.
But over time, something clicked again. The girl who'd never in her life picked up a hammer or a screwdriver was soon using power tools.
"I liked it," recalls Siani, flashing the radiant smile that comes to her when she considers things she's discovered about herself. "
It's like a moment you have. It helps you understand," she says of feeling the click slip into place.
Next in her progression came signing up for crew with the South Jersey Rowing Club on Pennsauken's nearby Cooper River.
By then, Siani knew some new things about herself: "I loved boats. I knew I loved water. I wanted to be in the water. Mom bought me a pair of sweatpants and signed me up."
First, though, there was the matter of the $1,500 cost, a stretch for a single mom on a nurse's salary, like LaPree Burgess.
"I've got to invest in my daughter," insists the 35-year-old ICU nurse at Cooper University Hospital on funding a season of crew. "I've got to give her a shot."
Fact is, LaPree has invested her life in Siani since the girl was just 6 months old. That's when LaPree — just 21 at the time — put aside her ambition to become a doctor and took in Siani, a cousin who came to her in a court-ordered placement.
LaPree knew then with her schedule and finishing college nursing classes she could serve as a lifeline only for Siani and not her siblings.
It was the spring semester of her first year at nursing school. Some days, Siani got dropped at day care as early as 5:45 a.m. and picked up as late as 7:30 p.m., allowing LaPree to get some studying done before taking her baby home. LaPree's mother was nearby to lend a helping hand.
LaPree's adoption of Siani became official in 2009.
Maybe LaPree's long-term investment in Siani is why her the latter stuck with rowing despite initial unease.
"When I first started, everyone was looking at me. It was like they were saying: 'Who is she? She's in the wrong place.' '' the teen recalled.
"I was the only African American. The only black person. I felt intimidated. But I had it in my mind I was going to stick.
"I told myself I'm gonna get in the boat and do it."
Do it she has.
"I'm walking on faith," notes LaPree. "Siani, she's walking on water."
Promise of help
There's a full-circle aspect to Siani's involvement in BoatWorks, sponsored by UrbanPromise.
Back when LaPree was also 14, she went to work at a summer camp sponsored by UrbanPromise. Her counselor was Jeff VanderKuip, a carpenter.
Today, he volunteers as overseer of BoatWorks, showing Siani how to make boats.
Ever protective, LaPree had sent Siani to UrbanPromise Academy, a private Christian school, rather than the Camden public schools. Next year, she moves to The King's Christian School in Cherry Hill.
And while LaPree had previously gone through the UrbanPromise summer program, it was Siani who suggested going on the canoe trip and trying boat building.
The building program began in the summer of 2009, according to founder Jim Cummings, a Pitman resident who sold his business and devotes his life to helping UrbanPromise youth.
That first year, they built five rowboats, including three named Promise, Faith and Grace.
By Kevin Shelly, Courier-Post