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It All Comes Right On The Water

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Mary Ann Smrz Headshot small

Mary Anne Smrz , Founder

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Staff of Red Kayak Institute

When a novice kayaker writes, “I was truly able to calm my thoughts and worries,” the staff of Red Kayak Institute fulfills its mission. Mary Anne Smrz established the Red Kayak Institute to help individuals facing life challenges. Six years ago, when caught in a cycle of grief, Mary Anne kayaked as much as her hectic lifestyle allowed. Paddling in silence helped her reclaim a sense of balance and serenity. Because of the healing she experienced on the water, Mary Anne realized others could reclaim themselves as well.

She began to encourage others to push away from shore. Three years ago with the help of a professional kayak outfitter and support from social workers, she organized a retreat for cancer survivors. Because they were so impressed at that event, some women bought their own kayaks. Amazing feedback from others in the group encouraged Mary Anne to explore other possibilities. Since the first retreat, RKI held two more retreats for cancer patients also graced with the participation of caregivers. RKI Logo

This year, RKI is facilitating a six-part retreat program for women who are actively participating in 12-step recovery. The pilot program, called Recovery on the Water, applies the 12-principles originated in Alcoholics Anonymous, within the structure and philosophy of RKI mission. Attendees are the same women for all sessions. They have committed to regular post-paddle feedback. Immediate results are demonstrating patterns of increased self-awareness and spiritual growth on both individual and group levels. The continuity of the study and analysis of consistent response over multiple sessions is anticipated to provide a foundation for future retreat series.

Staff of RKI also collaborated in a fundraising event with Mother McAuley High School in Chicago, Illinois, helping to raise over $4000 for the Jan Malloy Memorial Scholarship Fund. A Development Department retreat this summer for McAuley staff focused on team building as they work tirelessly to build alumnae relationships and raise funds to advance the work of their educational institution.

Next September, RKI will conduct a Leadership Academy retreat in northern Wisconsin for potential partners and others interested in helping the organization expand. A similar event held in Prescott, Arizona, last February successfully cultivated support. Plans for the future include collaboration with nonprofit groups in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Phoenix, Arizona, working with victims of domestic abuse. Staff is also exploring the possibility of working with The Wellness House in Hinsdale, Illinois, which helps cancer survivors, their families, and provides grief and bereavement support.

The RKI mission is simple: “Introducing people facing challenges to the healing benefit of kayaking. Just add water.” When participants get out of their comfort zone into a kayak, the simplicity of the boat and silence on the water also takes them on an inward journey. One cancer survivor admitted she has always been afraid of the water. Although she is in her sixties, she has never overcome that fear, but when she received training and support at an RKI retreat she said, “Words cannot begin to express my gratitude to you both for arranging this kayaking outing…  it was truly an amazing experience… as you know, I went way out of my comfort zone on this one and enjoyed every minute of it.”

RKI Training

RKI Training

Staff plans a couple more outings to this season’s Midwest schedule which winds down mid-October and then will explore opportunities to expand to a winter season in Arizona, beginning with a February retreat. It’s been an incredible year of growth as they continue to build programs and a larger corps of volunteers. Currently they measure the number of people who purchase kayaks after a retreat, the number of repeat paddlers in the cancer paddles and the number of times individuals go out on the water after a retreat experience. From post-paddle sharing and follow-up questionnaires, Recovery on the Water appears to offer an additional tool for those seeking ways to grow through the 12-step recovery. As a group and as individuals, there has been recognition that the gradual transformation that results from taking 12-step actions can be directly correlated to the healing benefits of RKI actions. Both relate to the “psychic change … a profound alteration in his (sic) reaction to life.”[i]

As RKI builds its programs, measuring success will become easier. Participants answer post-event questionnaires, offering suggestions and observations for future paddles. Expanding the retreat schedule will allow RKI to gather more information. Most importantly, time and again participants demonstrate the intangible value of kayaking—often in amazing ways. For example, a woman, processing grief over the loss of her father 22 years ago, cried like she had never done before. And a husband and wife explored their survivor/caregiver relationship, learned about each other’s cancer journey and helped each other go forward. A self-employed businessman, who recently lost a major account, found his kayak kept turning around but reframed it as a message not to let a setback turn him around. He decided not to worry and in 3 weeks, his business also “turned around.” In their testimonials, people say, “It was calming, which I really needed.” Or I “Felt at peace with myself.”

In our fast paced, technology driven life, RKI teaches the importance of “the pause,” taking time out to reconnect with oneself, others and with nature. Kayaking allows people the space and time to process things they have buried beneath the surface. After time spent on the water, RKI facilitates a group sharing. They pass around a little red kayak and when someone holds it, shares what he or she experienced on the water.

Research supports how people need to connect to nature to maintain balance and clarity in their lives. Richard Louv wrote The Nature Principle, which addresses a concept he calls Nature Deficit Disorder. Masaru Emoto has published extensive research and written many books on water crystals and the healing properties of water, in which he refers to the true power of water as HADO – Healing And Discovering Ourselves.

The work at the Red Kayak Institute is also the work of souls—often hard to measure in numbers or statistics, but relevant to the lives changed by time on the water. They have a saying at the Institute: “It all comes right on the water.” Testimonials of lives changed, insights gained and the healing that takes place shows they are making a difference, one drop at a time.


Red Kayak Institute is a nonprofit whose mission is helping people facing life challenges to reclaim themselves. Founder Mary Anne Smrz is an avid kayaker who uses insights gained on the water to enrich the lives of others.


[i] Spiritual Experience – Appendix II, from page 569, Alcoholics Anonymous

2 responses on “It All Comes Right On The Water

  1. Ray Borowski says:

    RKI began on a small Wisconsin, the journey has been amazing. Being on water is a resource for recovery I have long enjoyed. Enjoy and heal.

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