Enter the dragons

Kiwanians help kids and cops bond through an ancient Chinese sport.

Story by Julie Saetre  •  Photos by David Calvert

Andrea Eliscu calls them the “invisible kids”: inner-city youth who strive academically but receive neither praise (which is reserved for athletic prowess) nor intervention (which is directed toward troubled behavior). “They tend to get overlooked,” says Eliscu, who is based in Orlando, Florida. “And the gangs and the drug dealers recognize that this kid is a little bit lost.”

Thanks to Eliscu and the Kiwanis Club of Orlando, dozens of these youth now flourish through Dueling Dragons, a dragon boat program that builds trust and teamwork. In the sport of dragon boating, which originated in China some 2,700 years ago, participants climb into long, narrow vessels. A steersman and a drummer lead 20 paddlers, who must work together to swiftly race across a body of water.

Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival
The Dueling Dragons of Orlando compete in the Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival at the Sparks Marina in Sparks, Nevada, August 19, 2017. (Photo by David Calvert for Kiwanis International)

“The paddlers give up of themselves,” Eliscu summarizes, “to become one in the boat.”

When Eliscu launched the effort in 2011, she was concerned about the increasing tensions and conflicts occurring between law enforcement officers and inner-city residents across the United States. Dragon boating, she believed, could help these diverse groups bond. The Orlando Police Department agreed, and the first team of 10 officers and 10 youths was formed.

Not only did the team take to the sport, it won a gold medal in the first competition it entered. When Orlando Kiwanians learned about the program, they wanted to be involved.

Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival
RENO, NV – AUGUST 19: The Dueling Dragons of Orlando compete in the Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival at the Sparks Marina in Sparks, Nev., Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (Photo by David Calvert for Kiwanis International)

“What they’re doing for those kids, it truly transforms their lives,” says Tom Porter, the club’s treasurer.

The Kiwanians donated a 10-person practice boat, provide cookouts for team members and offer scholarships to students. In 2017, the club gave all proceeds from its annual corn-hole fundraiser—nearly US$12,000—to Dueling Dragons in honor of a fallen OPD officer who had been a team member.

Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival

Today, the program has been taken into the fold of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida, which is adding two new teams and including members of the Orlando Fire Department in the mix. Marty McClain, a Dueling Dragons participant and retired OPD officer, is the director of dragon boat programming.

“All these kids see is police coming in (to their neighborhoods) and arresting people,” he says. “Over the years, these kids who have been in our program realize, ‘OK, these aren’t bad people.’ Before that, they were afraid to talk to them. … And the police have learned that not all the kids in the hood are criminals. It’s worked both ways.”

Adds OPD Chief John Mina, “Dragon boating requires teamwork, trust, leadership, perseverance and dedication to succeed. In the dragon boat, officers and kids are equals and learn to rely on each other. The relationships built as a result transcend dragon boating and have a positive influence on all involved. We are grateful for the generosity Kiwanis has shown to this very important and life-changing program.”

Eliscu has her own words for the Kiwanians.

“I call them the earth angels. They are absolutely the most giving, whether it’s in person or financially. They have brought the word ‘Kiwanis’ to life.”

Northern Nevada International Dragon Boat Festival


This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

8 thoughts on “Enter the dragons

Add yours

  1. The dragon ‘boat’ was originally funded by H. Lake in Orlando, transferred to Orlando Health Center to support, and then expanded participants from the local community (police, corporations and etc.). Orlando Kiwanis piggy-backed on the event long after it started, so maybe the whole story can be disclosed (and all supporters) and not just the select (Orlando) tidbits! Social media can certainly validate this with a bit of research. Many Kiwanis Clubs in Central Florida have supported Boys and Girls Clubs for many years. Mr. Gary Cain (Ex. Dir.) can confirm too. No one club should take credit for the Dragon Boat history nor community support of the B&G’s organization. Cheery picking (not verifying facts) is not appropriate from K-International, as it too can effect membership recruiting! Thus, the Florida District Record shows in a ‘net loss’ membership. Give credit where due…….to all Kiwanians within the Orlando area.


    1. Dragon boating is soaring in popularity across the United States and around the world. This article provides a snapshot into how one Kiwanis club is furthering the Kiwanis International mission through this sport. Our intent is to share projects that inspire our members and reinforce our belief that kids need Kiwanis.


  2. Totally Awesome …. havong retired from 28 years in law enforcement … this event/program is truly making a difference.
    Ron Smith M.A
    Southwest District
    An Immediate Past “Children’s Fund” Int’l Trustee


  3. In response to K. Hanglin –I, founded the dragon boat program in Orlando in 2010 with a focus to raise money for the Orlando Health cancer center. It is correct that H Lake was the donor who helped to get us started. The Orlando Health Foundation was committed to help us grow and raise awareness of cancer through dragon boating in Orlando. The Orlando Dragon Boat Club is a program of the Orlando Rowing Club and within the Dragon Boat Club there are many teams. The Dueling Dragons is but one of the teams. With its creation in 2011, we needed funding and became a self-funded, all donor team. It was NOT UNTIL June 2017, that we moved into the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Florida as a way to have a greater infrastructure that would allow more growth and touch more teens and mentors. Kiwanis of Central Florida began donating to the Dueling Dragons 3 years ago. As donors they have: assisted us to buy a 10-person training boat, provided dinner food for our teens following practices, provided two scholarships to two Dueling Dragon Alumni and have offered other in-kind support. The Kiwanis Club support has allowed us to continue to change lives one-paddle stroke at a time. Kiwanis Clubs of Central Florida has had NOTHING to do with the Festivals, only the Dueling Dragons teams/teens/cop and initiatives. I hope that clears up any misconceptions.


  4. As one of the first participants in this program on the 2012 team I get chills every time I read the success stories of the officer and student bonds that have developed. This program has thrived and is expanding and I’m so excited to continue to see it grow. Some of the skills I gained on that boat I use daily. Learning to be selfless was the first thing I learned. You could be selfless and make it across the water or you could be selfish and cause the boat to tip. We learned to trust and love one another, and for those skills I will for ever be grateful and appreciate my experience as a Dueling Dragon .


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