First Waves teaches kids the power of conservation through standup paddling

Global Partner

First Waves conspires to bring conservation and mentorship to underserved youth in the Pittsburgh area through standup paddling. 

Ian Smith cares.  A lot.  His creation, First Waves, is a program that combines teaching kids how to standup paddle, learning about conservation efforts of local waterways and offering them filmmaking skills in order to empower the underprivileged in his local Pittsburgh PA neighborhood.

First Waves of Change:  Teaching Kids to Care

The inaugural First Waves clean up was in 2014.  At risk kids from the Pittsburgh area are chosen through the local Big Brother Big Sister program to participate.  Smith, owner and founder of SurfSUP Adventures, initially takes them out onto the river to play.  The kids learn the rudiments of whitewater standup paddling, how to ride a standing wave and the skills they need to become proficient paddlers.  But, that’s not all.

He then creates further opportunities for these kids to become stewards of the river by participating in a local clean up effort.  Using paddleboards to cart trash and reach difficult areas to access on the Monongahela River, students learn how much effort goes into keeping these waterways clean.  In their first year, they pulled over 1 ton of debris from the water!


First Wave, Pittsburgh at risk kids Ian Smith conservation
From student to activist: First Waves participant learns how to paddle and then loads debris on his board for a river clean up            Photo credit:  Renee Rosensteel

From Students to Activists

If that’s not enough, Smith’s program also tasks these students with documenting their overall experience using filmmaking.  Students are given instruction via Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where they learn to conduct interviews, shoot B-roll, and ultimately compile a story about the experience with the goal of influencing others to care about Pittsburgh’s waterways and environment.  Talk about something they can be proud of!

Using outdoor adventure like standup paddling, stewardship programs and filmmaking skills, First Waves gives kids a chance to feel good about themselves and participate in their community in a very real and tangible way by taking part of a vital effort to keep Pittsburgh’s waterways clean.

Now that’s a LOT of effort.


For additional information on how you can support Ian Smith’s conservation and youth advocacy programs, go to

To learn more ways YOU can use standup paddling for conservation efforts, check out:  Kelp Beds for Cleaner Waters:  One Paddler’s Advocacy by Brent Allen