by Lee Gutowski
Technical glitches and computer frustration caused some extra work for our featured neighbor, Kim Kosmitis, and I in making this article a reality. Kim, the founder and executive director of Riverwest Outdoor Educational Adventures (FB @riverwestoutdoors; website riverwestoutdoors.org), cracked me up when he called the computer and phone stuff “the bane of my existence.” So, for the first few minutes of our second interview – which he was kind enough to do after “technology” made my first notes and interview recording disappear into the ether – we shared our mutual annoyance.
But Kim’s tenacious spirit shines through, regardless of how, say, a wonky iPhone or a “disappeared” Word document might irritate him. And his lifelong love of the outdoors has laid the foundation for the career/s he’s still active in, even as he nears what many folks might consider retirement age. (Plus, he’s been able to have his employees, who grew up with the social media, etc., take over those duties for him in his business.)
Riverwest Outdoor Educational Adventures (ROEA) keeps him busy all year long, but especially in summertime, as he manages “camps” for city kids and teens who get to kayak, canoe, bike and climb amidst the Milwaukee’s “nature” — the parks, rivers, woods and trails we’re lucky to have right here in town.
The morning of our first (now lost, alas) interview, Kim had been at the river in Lincoln Park, getting kayaks and kids out on the water for a paddle. And before our second interview, Kim, with the help of his employees, had already been busy with a hiking program that had 16 kids exploring the Milwaukee River basin from Estabrook Park to Hubbard Park.
Right after we finished our second interview, Kim was on his way to another of his jobs; this one at Turner Hall, where he manages the climbing gym and where Riverwest Outdoors (as he refers to ROEA) operates the climbing gear pro shop. “It was only supposed to be a two-year stint,” he laughs, “but now I’ve been at Turner for 25 years.”
Kosmitis has also taught outdoor recreation – kayaking, rock and ice climbing, snowshoeing, canoeing, and rappelling – at UWM for 33 years. “Before Act 10 happened, I was able to teach in the summers, too.” He continues to teach at UWM during the school year. Talk about longevity. All this activity keeps him quite spry, although he does suffer from arthritic aches and pains that go with aging.
Kim has hired young staffers who he’s proud to be paying $15 per hour for starters; the more experience they have, the more he pays. “This year I have a few staff who are old ‘campers’ of mine, who came back to work with me after doing programs with Riverwest Outdoors.”
Summers have Kim and his staff doing programs that alternate weekly with different rec centers, while during the school year they do their programming with community learning centers (CLCs) at alternating schools including Escuela Fratney and Gaenslen School in Riverwest. “It’s always been my goal to make these cool outdoor activities accessible to city kids who don’t have as much opportunity to do this kind of thing,” he explains.
Not only does Kosmitis pay his employees well, but he also keeps the prices of his programs low enough to be affordable for schools and CLCs yet still allow him to “break even, with a little bit of profit.” Crunching the numbers on one of their latest kayaking excursions showed that it cost just under $20 per participant for two and a half hours of activity, including transportation to and from the site (and popsicles in the shade for all once they pulled the kayaks out of the water).
Well, how did he get here?
Kim grew up in Sherman Park, which he remembers fondly as being a vibrant community with many and diverse small businesses as well as the big, booming A.O. Smith plant on the neighborhood’s edge. He went to 38th St. School in Sherman Park and joined the Boy Scouts, which ran his troop out of a church on North Avenue and 38th. It was in Boy Scouts that he got to indulge his outdoorsy interests; while a Scout, he got to experience camping, canoeing and other outdoor adventures.
He got into rock climbing when he took a class through Dairyland Expeditions. They did some climbs at Devil’s Lake, and he was hooked. Thirty-some years later, he remains friends with the person who taught that first climbing class. Through the years he’s taken groups to Devil’s Lake and Governor Dodge Park for climbing expeditions. He also got into ice climbing since then and added it to his programming repertoire.
Kosmitis attended UWM and got his degree in community recreation “with an emphasis on the outdoors.” From 1974 to 1988, he worked at the Boys & Girls Club while between semesters of college and even after graduating, while working other jobs at the same time. Many of these jobs (such as at Bayview Community Center, and Neighborhood House) were through government funded programs which “went away” when the programs ended.
In 1989, Kim started a business out of his home, selling camping gear and the like. Not long after, he moved into a storefront space at 1000 E. Center Street. “The store only lasted for like two years. There was no foot traffic in the winter because it was super cold one year, and people were just staying indoors. Plus, the city was replacing the bridges on North and Locust Streets, so cars weren’t driving by there much either.” Undeterred, Kosmitis went back to running his business out of his house.
He bought six used canoes, started making contacts with local parks, and commenced to doing canoe trips with students. Two of his female friends were his first staffers. “None of us were over 5’7” – not exactly the tallest bunch of people – so we called ourselves the ‘Smurf staff.’” As the business progressed, he bought kayaks and climbing gear. “There was a lot of call for biking, especially for central city kids, because many of them didn’t have bikes,” he recalls. “I was renting bikes for the kids for a while, but that got pretty expensive, so I started buying bikes. I had some nice Schwinn
mountain bikes donated to me, then I added more bikes I found at swap meets and the like. Plus, Dream Bikes is a great place for getting good, affordable bikes.”
Other than looking forward to camping and canoeing with his grandchildren once they’re old enough, Kosmitis is planning another endeavor for the future. “I’m trying to work with another agency and want to start a youth training program for outdoors – to get people involved in the retail end of it and taking people out on excursions and stuff. And I think there’s money out there to help me with the funding … Other, much less segregated cities than Milwaukee are doing it well … We need to show kids of color in Milwaukee, ‘look, you can get into this field. It’s a great field to be in, and you can make a decent living at it.’”