MOUNT VERNON – Growing up in Mount Vernon, Stephen Fleming took every opportunity he could to get out on the water.
He discovered kayaking as a teenager and would spend long days on the Kokosing and Mohican rivers, soaking up the sun. When he went off to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard, he took his love for kayaking with him.
Fleming has been stationed on ships around the world, and he’s found time to kayak near Panama, Columbia, and even Guantanamo Bay.
“I’ve been paddling all over the world,” the 1998 Mount Vernon High School graduate said. “It’s been pretty awesome.”
Now, Fleming is returning home – and he’s hoping to spread his love for kayaking along the way.
Fleming is the founder of Paddle for Heroes, a local nonprofit that helps veterans and first responders heal by getting out on the water. He began the initiative in 2016 with the help of his friends, and the organization has quickly gained momentum. It’s known for the 161-mile kayak that a dozen members make each spring, going from Mount Vernon to Marietta (eventually touching the Ohio River) in an effort to raise money and awareness.
Paddle for Heroes gives veterans, first responders and community members an opportunity to perform river clean-ups and community service projects. They also raise money for disaster relief efforts and promote “healing through paddling.”
The organization’s latest project could greatly impact the lives of local residents. Paddle for Heroes is raising money to have an ADA-accessible kayak launch installed at Ariel-Foundation Park, so that people of all abilities can paddle on the park’s Central Lake.
“We really want to get people out on the water,” said Fleming, who is currently completing his final year with the Coast Guard, stationed on Michigan’s eastern coast.
“You know, there might be an older person that might have bad knees, who wants to go kayak but they feel like they just can’t safely get out on the kayak. This is going to give them the opportunity to get back in a boat, and it’s open to anybody that wants to get outdoor recreation in."
Paddle for Heroes has raised over $30,000 for the project over the last two years. On Saturday, the organization will look to meet its fundraising goal by hosting a morning of activities at Ariel-Foundation Park – first, a 5k run/walk at 9 a.m., then a kayak/SUP (stand-up-paddleboard) race at 10:30.
Entry will cost $20 for the 5k and $15 for the kayak/SUP race. Those wishing to participate in both events can register for $30. All proceeds will go towards the ADA-accessible kayak launch.
Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, although participants can also register online. In addition to the races, Paddle for Heroes will raffle off a kayak, a king-suite stay at the Mount Vernon Grand Hotel, and gift cards to various local businesses. The Coast Guard will have recruitment items on-site, and Operation Paddle Smart will provide water safety information.
With temperatures expected to climb into the mid-80s on Saturday, Fleming said it will be a great opportunity for the community to come together, get out on the water, and contribute to a worthy cause.
“We are just a couple thousand dollars away from our goal,” Fleming said. “We hope to meet that Saturday.”
It’s unclear who had the initial idea to bring an ADA-accessible kayak launch to Mount Vernon; Fleming says it was Ariel-Foundation Park, while the park says it was Fleming.
Regardless, both parties can agree on one thing: the launch, when built, will provide a crucial recreational alternative for area residents.
An ADA-accessible kayak launch essentially serves as an extension of a deck, containing modifications (such as handles and steps) that help disabled kayakers get into their boat.
Someone in a wheelchair can haul their kayak (most are relatively light, between 20-80 pounds) up to the deck and place it on the launch's rails. After getting out of their wheelchair, they can slide directly onto a stair-like platform and down into the boat. Using the rails, kayakers can then pull themselves out onto the water and begin paddling.
Paddle for Heroes viewed Ariel-Foundation Park as an ideal place to install the launch, given its central location and calm waters.
“It’s a great place for folks with disabilities to get out on the water, because it’s still there, it’s peaceful,” park marketing director Carrie Haver said. “There’s less chance of being damaged by rocks in the river or something like that, or rushing water.”
Ariel-Foundation Park plans to purchase and install the ADA-accessible kayak launch in June, Haver said, after fundraising for the project is complete. Paddle for Heroes will demonstrate how to use the launch at its ribbon-cutting ceremony, Fleming said, and the public is encouraged to attend. The launch will be located on the southeast side of Central Lake, near the handicap parking spots and the ADA-accessible fishing dock.
Raising money for the launch was a community effort, Fleming said. Of the $30,000 Paddle for Heroes has already raised, a large portion has come from local individuals, businesses and foundations.
Paddle for Heroes received a $5,000 grant from the Knox County Foundation for the project, and businesses like Stein Brewing Company, Custom Cutters and Holmes Tire all donated. The organization even received donations from out-of-town; one U.S. Marine Corps veteran sent a check for $5,000, while an Air Force veteran donated $1,000 – and neither were from Mount Vernon.
Paddle for Heroes also hosted several fundraisers over the last year to raise money for the project. The nonprofit held a benefit concert at Ariel-Foundation Park last summer that raised close to $14,000, including sponsorships.
“There are people in the community who want to get on the water and don’t have the opportunity that really love what we’re doing,” Fleming said. “So we have a lot of good support for this project.”
Benefits of kayaking
Fleming first realized the benefits of kayaking for veterans when he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. He was volunteering with Heroes on the Water, an organization that takes wounded veterans and first responders fishing.
“I went out there and I saw how they benefited,” Fleming recalled, “and I was like, ‘That is so awesome.’”
Citing a Troy University study, Fleming said paddling and being outdoors helps reduce stress in veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There’s something about the serenity of the water, along with the fresh air and physical exercise, that helps clear the mind.
“It showed drastic measurements to improve their conditions,” Fleming said of the study. “Just going out on the water for either kayak fishing or just paddling down the stream reduced tension, stress levels, everything.”
And now, with ADA-accessible kayak launches, veterans and first responders with disabilities can find peace on the water as well.
"Getting ADA launches and adaptive kayaks actually opened it up for disabled veterans, and veterans that maybe had an injury, or an older person that can no longer get in and out of a kayak," Fleming said. "These launches offer a solution to that.”
Haver said kayaking has become increasingly popular over the last 5-10 years, according to data provided by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. It’s a relatively affordable way for people of all ages to get out and enjoy the water, she said. Kayaks are light and easy to haul, and they provide a peaceful alternative to running or gym work.
“Getting out on the water is so restorative and offers time for reflection,” Haver said. “It’s very easy to do by yourself. You can go out for a half hour and paddle around. Typically, you can even do this on your lunch hour. It’s a great thing.”
Beginning this summer, Ariel-Foundation Park will offer a ‘Beginner Kayak Adventure Course,’ which will be taught by an American Canoe Association certified instructor. Equipment will be provided, and the course will give local residents the opportunity to learn about the basics of kayaking – both skills and safety.
Haver said that when she stops by the park, she’ll typically see one or two kayakers out on the lakes. With the addition of the ADA-accessible launch, she said, even more community members will be able to participate.
First in the region
When Fleming was researching ADA-accessible kayak launches back in the early stages of the project, he came to a realization: there weren’t many – if any at all – in central Ohio.
Mount Vernon will be the first city in the region, according to Fleming’s research, to have a BoardSafe dock. It will be “fully ADA-accessible,” meaning it can handle adaptive kayaks and canoes. It’s the same type of ADA-accessible launch used by Team River Runner, a national program aimed at getting disabled veterans out on the water.
“It’ll be a great asset to Mount Vernon because people will come from all around just to use this launch,” Fleming said. “It will bring people in and it’s great for the city.”
After two years of researching, planning and fundraising, Paddle for Heroes’ latest project is coming to a close. Haver said the park and city are grateful for their dedication, and excited to see the effect the kayak launch has on the community.
“I think more than anything I’m excited for the Paddle for Heroes guys. Because they’ve worked so hard at this, and this is just a culmination of all of their efforts. I’m just so excited for them,” Haver said.
“They are so happy to give this to the park and to give this to our community, so I want to see the reward for their efforts. But I know they’re looking forward to seeing people use it and seeing it be very popular.”
For Fleming, who no longer lives in Mount Vernon but still visits frequently, the project was a labor of love. He felt it was his responsibility to give back to the city that raised him, and he did so the best way he knew how.
“You never forget where you’re from,” Fleming said Wednesday, one day before he planned to venture back to his hometown. “You want to leave your town in better shape than when you found it.”
Want to make a donation for the ADA-accessible kayak launch, but can't make it to Saturday's fundraiser? Visit Paddle for Heroes' website for further information.