According to Webster’s Dictionary, a “river rat” is defined as a riverman, or one who spends his leisure time on or along the river. Jay Alley fits both of these definitions and has arguably been as wet as he has been dry during his 50 years of life. Jay grew up playing, paddling and competing on the Saluda River, so it was no surprise to him when, in the early 1990s, he was paddling along and a clear vision of a children’s ministry penetrated his thoughts.
Canoeing for Kids, birthed officially in 1993, focuses on providing a free paddling experience to special needs and underprivileged children through various organizations, camps and children’s homes. Jay launched the non-profit by first rounding up a team of paddlers and embarking on a long-distance paddling trip that spanned 2,000 miles from New York to New Orleans, Louisiana. The 57-day Canoe-a-Thon generated close to $40,000 as well as necessary attention and media coverage.
Jay purchased a fleet of canoes, kayaks, rafts and safety equipment, rounded up qualified guides and was open for business. Private trips, sponsorship opportunities, grants and donations help keep Canoeing for Kids viable — as does an annual Christmas tree sale and a Raft-A-Rama, which is a 7-mile fundraiser paddling activity from the Canoeing for Kids headquarters to the Gervais Street Bridge.
Jay grew up a preacher’s son. He unabashedly attributes the success of Canoeing for Kids to his Creator. He believes prayers and support sustain the organization, as well as the encouragement of Joe, his father. Several years ago, Joe saw first-hand the calming effects of Jay’s nurturing spirit as he introduced rambunctious and often physically and emotionally challenged children to paddling. Joe describes a hush coming over children again and again, as well as moments of awe.
Jay points out that one of the goals of Canoeing for Kids is to introduce children to an activity that is — for many of them — way outside their comfort zones. Many are fearful at first, of both the water and being inside a boat of some sort; however, conquering that fear builds great confidence.
Word of Canoeing for Kids spread quickly to summer camps and other groups. Jay’s initial goals were to at least have 100 children involved during the paddling season, which extends from April to October, weather permitting. Yet, Canoeing for Kids now typically serves about 1,200 children annually. This past year, however, despite some decline due to the recession, the organization still served almost 1,500.
Staff and volunteers built a permanent facility on the Saluda River near U.S. Highway 378 and Interstate 20. It houses multiple canoes, kayaks, rafts, paddleboards and other equipment. Even though most trips occur on the Saluda, Jay has trailers that will carry equipment to a pond or lake. “Some come to us, and sometimes we go to them,” he says. If there is a camp with a large group of children, taking equipment to them is easier.
Even though the organization started out offering primarily canoeing, kayaking quickly became the paddling experience of choice. Paddle boarding is now trending as well. “The water marketing folks are always looking for ways to make things new and exciting,” quips Jay, who says he just goes with the flow. Jay’s main concentration is on providing children with an enjoyable, memorable experience on the water.
Some come back year after year. In fact, some of those who learned to paddle through a camp or other organization have returned to volunteer or work. Some of the memories made involved Canoeing for Kids’ unofficial mascot, Big Moose, Jay’s black lab, who passed away a few years ago. Now rambling around the Canoeing for Kids site and enjoying the water is Little Moose, Big Moose’s offspring.
Jay says one of his bright spots was when a student came back for a visit after many years and said, “I remember this dog when I visited here as a kid.” Jay says, “I just smiled and said, ‘You remember his daddy. They look exactly alike.’”
One of Jay’s long-time assistants, Bailey Slice Parker, who — after getting “a real job” — still helps him out when large groups are booked. She felt so connected to Canoeing for Kids that she decided to have her wedding this past fall on the shore of the Saluda River on the organization’s grounds. Jay says the property was more beautiful than it had ever been; a few weeks later, this past October during the “thousand-year flood,” it was ravaged by the out-of-control river.
The Saluda River rose so high that 2 1/2 feet of water drenched the shop, and the water extended another 100 feet beyond the shop. To put this into perspective, the shop sits at least 29 feet higher than the river and about 220 feet from the shoreline.
“We prepared as best as we could,” says Jay. “We put stuff in the rafts, canoes and kayaks and let them float in the shop until the water receded. The grounds by the river took such a beating. We lost about 14 trees and so much topsoil, but when you consider all the people who lost their homes and cars and personal belongings, I’m not complaining.”
Jay says the timing of the flood, for his business at least, was good. The season was essentially over for Canoeing for Kids. He and staff members and volunteers have spent these past several months trying to get the site cleaned up and the operation in running order so that kids can start paddling as soon as possible.
During the first several years with Canoeing for Kids, Jay made sure he was on the water with the paddlers. These days, he spends more of his time as the “caretaker” for the organization. He lets skilled guides take the kids out, for the most part. One of those skilled guides is Jay’s “spiritual son,” Pierce, whom he helped raise. As a high schooler, Pierce works with Jay in the summer months. In the shop most days are his sons Joe Joe, in third grade, and Rivers (ironically enough) who is 6 years old.
“I’m a blessed man to have these boys around me, to have my parents living with me, to have this organization still up and running,” says Jay. “We’re never sure how God is going to give us our blessings. One of my daily prayers is for God to keep me healthy and strong so I can take care of the things I need to for my family and for Canoeing for Kids.”