Let My People Go Paddling

The Reason Our Staff Paddle

By Will Yeiser, Executive Director and Co-Founder

One of the many concepts that influenced the creation of the French Broad River Academy (FBRA) came from legendary climber, businessman, environmentalist, and founder of Patagonia, Inc. Yvon Chouinard.  In his book “Let My People Go Surfing,” he outlines his business approach of prioritizing the environment over profits, as well as the importance of a purpose-driven business model.  The idea from the book that resonated with me the most though was the concept captured in the title.  Creating a work culture that allowed employees to remain connected to their passions and pursuits while reinforcing and improving outcomes for stakeholders was a critical priority as I brainstormed the various iterations of what FBRA eventually came to be in the years leading up to our opening. Today, FBRA staff culture embodies Chouinard’s ideas.

For myself and many of our staff, that passion is whitewater paddling.  Consistent access to the surrounding rivers and mountains was a huge part of the equation for long-term staff retention.  The staff are the most important piece of our organization and keeping them at FBRA is my number one priority in many ways, especially when one considers the time and investment we commit to our staff.

FBRA Staff Culture

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FBRA staff at the takeout on the French Broad after a work day.

I know from teaching in a variety of public middle schools before FBRA how challenging working with this age group can be.  However, with a built-in day each week to take children and staff out on the rivers, the local trails, and the ski hills, I believed that I could ask my people to do the demanding work of this job year after year as long as they could remain connected to their passion, whether that be international travel, whitewater kayaking, playing live music, or any one of the many elements included in our program.

Happy Staff Who Stay

The theory has been proven correct.  The current average years of service per staff member at FBRA is four and a half years, and there are six staff members with over ten years of service, two of whom have over fifteen years of service.  The connection to the river does not just happen between staff members during work days.  It plays out over the summer, during breaks over a long weekend, and even during the winter.  Whether it is a quick run down Section 9 of the French Broad after work, a Green lap on the weekend, or an eighteen-day trip down the Grand Canyon during the summer break, our staff spend a lot of time on the water.  

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FBRA staff on the New River last fall
let my people go paddling fbra staff culture
FBRA staff members John Greene, Liddell Shannon, and Tricia Chan on the Grand Canyon

The FBRA staff culture centers around a passion for international travel as well.  Girls Outdoor Program Director Nora Randolph and Girls Staff member Ann Marie Satterfield traveled to Mexico City over Spring Break this year.  Girls Program Director Tricia Chan and Boys Staff Member John Greene explored Spain last summer.  

let my people go paddling fbra staff culture

Professional Development? Or Fun? Or All of the Above?

All of these trips and experiences reinforce and improve the student experience at FBRA.  Staff build upon their foreign language skills, expand their technical expertise in core programming areas such as whitewater paddling, and deepen their overall skill set that relates directly to their multifaceted job at FBRA.  They also create unforgettable shared experiences together in unique settings while cultivating relationships that last a lifetime.

Ultimately, our staff inspire students to pursue healthy, meaningful activities as they prepare for high school, college, and the competitive world, while role-modeling safe and appropriate behaviors.  Actions speak louder than words, and I would argue that the FBRA staff’s actions both in and out of the classroom are one of the strongest lessons we could ever teach.  FBRA will continue to “let my people go paddling,” especially as construction on the fully-funded artificial whitewater right outside our doorstep is set to begin this summer!