By Kristine Sorensen

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Extracurricular activities, like sports, are important for kids but are often expensive — too expensive for many families.

A local program called “First Row” gives girls in Pittsburgh Public Schools the opportunity to row on a team at no cost, using money from grants and private donors.

It’s making a difference in girls’ lives — bringing Pittsburgh kids from the inner city and beyond to the docks at Washington’s Landing on the Allegheny River to learn about hard work and teamwork through rowing.

Samantha Finigan, the “First Row” coach and the director of outreach for the Three Rivers Rowing Association, says the teamwork starts with attendance. Just showing up is paramount.

Then, the girls on the team carry the boat together. Each boat is thousands of dollars, and it’s literally resting on their shoulders as they carry it from the marina to the river together. Even the name for the sport, “crew,” means a group.

“You can’t row an entire eight boat with only seven girls. I hope they learn to be responsible for themselves through this,” Finigan says.

One conversation with the girls and you see, they get it.

Lizzie Cottrell learned to row through “First Row” and is now on the team at Robert Morris University.

“If one person in a boat is not working their hardest, it impacts everyone and the speed of the boat. And if one person is pulling too hard and thinks they can carry team, that impacts us also,” Cottrell says.

Amanda Talbot, the coxswain, steers the boat. She’s from Allentown and is in “First Row” for her third year.

“I like the community aspect. I can come here free of judgement. I can work hard and not only am I getting in shape, everyone is so encouraging. So if I’m having a bad day or someone else is having a bad day, we still encourage each other to do our best and push ourselves,” Talbot says.

She adds that if it weren’t for the free program, she wouldn’t have been able to pay the thousands of dollars it costs to be on a traditional high school rowing team.

Lauren Skelly, from Beechview, is in the same boat.

“I came to a practice with the team here, and I really liked it,” Skelly says, “but I didn’t have the money for it, and so I came to this one and I really liked this one cause you don’t have to pay.”

The “First Row” program pays for the girls’ dues that go toward new boats and keeping them at the boat house. That’s normally a couple thousand dollars.

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It also covers their transportation and hotel for their races in Ohio, New York and other places. “First Row” is open to all eighth through 12th grade girls in Pittsburgh Public or Pittsburgh Charter Schools.

It’s not too late to join for this season. It continues through the spring.

Here’s a link to the “First Row” program, as well as a link to the website where you can learn about many more great things for kids and families in our region.

You can also email the coach, Samantha Finigan, at

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