Moms make confident strokes in rowing program

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Friday August 12, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- When single mothers Denise Gonzalez and Amy Margraf arrived at the boathouse on Onota Lake on Thursday morning, they began to work out on a set of portable rowing machines on shore.

A short time later, both women were in the water, each at the helm of a single rowing shell. With short concise strokes, they began to glide across the lake's clear, blue surface as they pulled farther and farther away from the shore. They were practicing a skill that is intended to help them manage their lives.

Gonzalez, 22, and Margraf, 21, are members of the Young Parent Rowing Program, made up of young single moms who belong either to the Helen Berube Teen Parent Program or reside at Redfield House, a Pittsfield residence for single moms and their children.

They have gathered by the lake's boathouse twice a week since June to learn the finer points of rowing and sculling from Harriet and Lewis Cuyler, who head the Berkshire Rowing and Sculling Society.

Besides single sculls, the women also row in shells that contain either four or eight members. Harriet Cuyler said the program teaches the women how to commit to a project and depend on each other. She said young single mothers tend to be "very independent" and inclined to go their own way.

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"It teaches them to make a commitment for an extended period of time and to work together," Cuyler said. "When you're rowing a boat, you all have to be doing the same thing at the same time or you won't go anywhere."

"Patience," said Gonzalez, who is originally from Boston and who joined the program last summer. "You have to be very patient."

The Pittsfield program is part of a larger initiative known as "Rowing Strong, Rowing Together," founded in 2001 by the Care Center in Holyoke, an alternative education program for pregnant and parenting teen women who have dropped out of high school. The program is intended to provide a high-quality, team-building activity for young women who would normally have no access to this type of opportunity.

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The program also has teams in Holyoke, Springfield and Boston. A group from Hartford, Conn., may join the program next year, RSRT program director Laura Hutchinson said. RSRT is funded by grants. When the season ends in August, it is followed by a regatta that includes all four clubs. Gonzalez, who has a 5-year-old daughter, finished first in the individual scull competition at last year's event.

Rowing, especially in groups, teaches the women teamwork and helps to increases their self-esteem, Hutchinson said.

"I think the main thing they get out of it is that they come out feeling they have a lot more confidence in themselves, and more skills so they can work in groups better," she said. "They also have a better vision of themselves that's not just limited to being teenage moms, but is expanded to athletes and competitors. They can be role models to their kids. They come out better than when they started."

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Pittsfield began its program five years ago, according to Cuyler. When this year's program began in June, it consisted of 13 members between the ages of 14 and 24. But work and other commitments cut the original number to five. Three women came to practice on Thursday.

Before joining the club, Gonzalez said her only previous experience to rowing had been watching crew teams race on the Charles River.

"I get to be in these wonderful boats, and I can get better at it," she said. "I can synergize this with my music. It's like the piano. You can't go from first gear to fourth gear right away."

Margraf, who is originally from Windsor, joined the program this year. She said rowing has helped her to focus -- "it feels good having my mind on something" -- and to stay in shape.

"I feel like you're doing something good for yourself," said Margraf, whose daughter is 15 months old. "It gives you something to look forward to."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:,
or (413) 496-6224.


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