When Sekou arrived in the United States in 2009, he couldn’t speak English. His father had sent for his family, who were living in Guinea at the time, to move from West Africa to the Bronx, N.Y.

Adjusting to a new environment was difficult—unlike Sekou’s school in Guinea, where he was popular and spent a lot of time outside with his friends, the outgoing 14-year-old was placed in a middle school where kids picked fights with him. He lived in an area of the Bronx that had some of the city’s highest rates of violent crime in addition to being one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation. He had little reason to go outside.

A few months after arriving, Sekou discovered Rocking the Boat on a day trip with his school. The nonprofit had established itself in the South Bronx in 1998, when it began teaching local students the craft of wooden boatbuilding. By the time Sekou enrolled, it had expanded to offer students environmental and on-water education opportunities, job skills training, and community rowing programs to engage people living along the Bronx River.

The language barrier made transitioning into Rocking the Boat hard for Sekou, who communicated at first only in French. But he was well-liked, and his desire to have a good time and see projects to completion helped him acclimate and learn English. When he was 16, he was hired into the job skills program at Rocking the Boat, working on commission to build and repair boats.

Sekou, now 17 and a junior in high school, is not sure what he’s going to do after graduation, although he’s thinking about enlisting. His priority right now is working on a 30-foot whaleboat for the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut that is slated to be finished in 2012. “I’m not going nowhere until I finish the boat and see how it’s gonna come out,” he said.

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