Our Story

Our Story

The Story Behind Water Walkers

by Clint Bandy

I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere Texas, spending almost all of my time as a child playing outside. My favorite adventure was boating with friends on the lake. I remember being on the open water and feeling like it was an ocean of endless waves. I felt a sense of freedom every time we set sail, where my imagination could run wild with all of the possibilities in such a big world… I canʼt imagine the trajectory of my life without those experiences, and I wouldnʼt trade them for anything.
In fact, those experiences saved my life. I remember as a lost teenager dropping out of high school, facing major hardships, and taking the wrong path in almost every area of my life. Even in the darkest part, I found myself gravitating to the outdoors and the water. While in that vast openness all alone, the darkness began to fade, and the light revealed something bigger than me, something relentlessly pursuing me and leading me away from the path of destruction.
That “light” inspired me, and I worked very hard to turn things around because I was able to see something better for myself on the horizon.
Fast forward years later… I moved to the big city of Nashville, still with the same wild spirit. I attended Lipscomb University where some new passions emerged through their service learning programs. I began working with kids from underserved communities tutoring them in math (my area of study). Seeing the unimaginable environments in which these kids were growing up was shocking.

More In Common Than You Think

But something crazy emerged… despite the vast differences in our cultures, the kids and I discovered some common threads woven into our childhood experiences. I knew what it was like to be a child behind in school and to grow up in an aggressive culture where fighting was necessary to survive. I was no stranger to trauma and bad decisions. And while I will never completely relate to the depths of their struggles, bits and pieces of similar emotions connected us and spurred me to keep coming back. And so I did. And I continued to witness first hand the heartbreaking stories I would normally only see on the news.

Despite the “impossible” circumstances, the kids were resilient and had so much potential. They simply needed one or two individuals to be there for them, to encourage them and always show up. And as simple as it sounds, that was not the reality for the majority of them.

In contrast, while I was growing up, I was lucky to have a few people there for me. They were my dad, mother, and Aunt Jeri. I canʼt imagine what life would have been like without having them to look up to. They always had my back no matter what, believed in me, and encouraged me often. To see so many kids without that type of influential adult in their lives was concerning. Being that person for the kids quickly became my number one passion.

A Fateful Day on the Lake

I continued to serve those young students, and a few years later, after I graduated, I gave up my dream of becoming a college math professor and started my career in a nonprofit. I took a job working for an organization called Learning Matters. They specialized in educational intervention for families that couldnʼt afford it, and I was one of the lead math educators . On top of that, I stayed active volunteering with other organizations doing similar outreach. I couldnʼt get enough. My new passion was slowly growing into a mission … and that mission finally came to light one fateful day on the lake with my best friend, Jordan.

We spent that entire summer on the lake wakeboarding and wake surfing. One day, he randomly said to me, “I bet the kids you work with have never seen a lake or a boat before”. Suddenly, a light bulb went off! Without researching, or asking the kids, I knew immediately that statement was true.

Kids living in the most desperate situations almost never leave the city, much less see a large body of water or ride on a boat. This was unfathomable to me. As someone who grew up on constant outdoor adventure, I felt devastated. I thought hard about the experiences I had growing up and what a profound impact they had. Where would I be had I never experienced them? How much smaller would my view of the world be?
Considering my time outdoors as a teen helped me find my way, I kept thinking about all the children who donʼt get those experiences. They donʼt have those big revelations while stuck in a two-bedroom, run-down apartment with five siblings, boarded up windows, and gunshots going off every other day. Where and when would their “aha moment” occur?
I didnʼt have an answer, … but in that deep moment of reflection on the water, I discovered my mission in life…

Filling a Gap with a Dream and a Boat

From that point on, I pursued that vision in almost every waking moment. I started to research other nonprofits doing similar things with water sports and other outdoor adventures, but only found camps and “one-off” organizations. But, the kids I served rarely made it to camps, and didnʼt truly benefit from one-off experiences. They needed funding, transportation, and a parent willing to fill out an application to attend camp. Sadly, very few at-risk children have any of those.

I saw a major gap that too many children were falling through. So, on February 16, 2016, I made the final decision to start Water Walkers, to reach the kids that rarely get reached, and to provide extraordinary experiences for children who deserve so much more than the hand they are dealt in life.

So… we started with one boat and a dream of making a difference in one of the roughest Nashville neighborhoods. We chose that specific public housing community because there was a tremendous amount of need, and very few organizations were present and making an impact. Much of the area surrounding the neighborhood had gentrified over the years, so it had become a forgotten promise zone, leaving many of the children and families without vital resources.
We dove in head first and immediately started seeing the hardships and challenges the kids were facing. Children were being recruited into gang life as early as nine years old. Family members of our kids were shot and killed. Domestic violence, unsanitary living situations, and widespread drug use were common. The “impossible” conditions were unimaginable.
BUT… once again… we saw the resiliency of the kids. We saw their heart and their longing for something better. We saw an opportunity to expose the children to something bigger and more beautiful than what they were accustomed to seeing.

Growing Pains

During our first two summers, 75 kids experienced a trip to the lake for the first time! These were children and teens who had grown up only seeing the concrete city and relentless negativity. We watched them as they experienced being on an open body of water for the first time, flying across the endless waves on a boat. Surrounded totally by nature, we could see their eyes light up in the wide open space of nothing but water, islands, and cliffs. We witnessed that sense of wonder and inspiration come to life for the first time.

The kids saw something much bigger than themselves, and it opened a different part of their brains. New thoughts emerged, “Maybe there is something better out there for me. Maybe I can have something like this in my life. Maybe there is a world that exists beyond what Iʼve seen”. It was life changing and extraordinary!

It didn’t take long for the rest of the neighborhood to find out about us. Within weeks, as the videos the kids took of themselves wake surfing and wakeboarding started circulating on social media, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to be a Water Walker! So we expanded. Rapidly. And in those chaotic years of growth, we learned the kids had so many more needs we werenʼt meeting. Nobody was. So we evolved into something much bigger than only OUTDOOR ADVENTURE and water sports.

Expanding to Meet Needs

We added… EDUCATION, so the kids could strengthen their learning skills and rise to their respective grade levels academically in literacy, math, and science. WELLNESS, by offering clinical support to help our children cope with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). BASIC NEEDS, so our youth could have the necessary resources to maintain their personal hygiene and eat nutritiously. And finally, the pinnacle, LEADERSHIP, for older teens consisting of a paid work experience, life-skills workshops, and access to mentors.

These have become our five pillars of programming. Each pillar is dependent on the others, and each pillar is not nearly as strong on its own. If our children go home hungry to an empty pantry, how can we expect them to focus on their school work? If our children are dealing with extreme traumas and not getting the help they need, they typically have behavior issues. If our children can’t read, their chances of becoming an influential leader drop dramatically. We do a lot for our kids because they need a lot. They deserve every bit and more.
As we look into the future, we envision a world where there are no barriers between urban communities and the transformative power of outdoor adventure. We see student leaders who are inspired and empowered to step out of their environment with confidence to walk on the rough waters of life. And as the needs of our children grow, so will our programs. We will persevere, together. And continue to DO THE IMPOSSIBLE.