Bronx, New York (CNN) -- It started with a challenge Adam Green accepted almost 20 years ago.
During a semester off from college, he was volunteering at a middle school in East Harlem.
"The teacher there said he'd had this dream to build a boat with his kids, but had never had the time to do it," Green said. "(He) wondered if I wanted to take on the job."
Green, who grew up in New York, knew nothing about building boats. But, armed with a set of plans and a bunch of salvaged wood, he and a group of students set out determined to build one.
Eight months later, they had constructed a rowboat. When they put it to the test in the school's pool, their 8-foot dinghy floated.
"It was just the most magical thing," Green said. "Creating something that's not just real, but actually works and can get you somewhere ... was thrilling for me and for the kids."
The experience had such a profound impact, Green was inspired to use the same concept to help other young people in need.
Today, his nonprofit, Rocking the Boat, empowers youth from the South Bronx to work together and build wooden boats from scratch. They use them to row and sail and do river restoration.
"Our work is really all about using boats to build kids," said Green, 41. "We want to give kids a chance to create something of themselves and then be able to go off and succeed out in the rest of the world."
A river in the Bronx?
Many Rocking the Boat students live in or near Hunts Point, one of the roughest areas of the South Bronx. According to the New York State Education Department, only about 42% of students in the Hunts Point area graduate high school. Of those students, only 12% are prepared for college.
"It's a really, really challenging place to live," Green said. "Dangerous streets, crime, drugs, prostitution. All these things are swirling around our kids. They're walking through it every day."
Amid the area's scrap metal yards and industrial warehouses, the organization's brightly lit workshop and spacious backyard give students a different reality to walk into. Its location also provides easy access to the Bronx River -- something many people in the community never knew existed.
"The Bronx River is really one of the most hidden gems of New York City," Green said. "It has tons of birds and fish and all kinds of native plant life. ... It's this quiet, protected, calm place where young people can grow."
Students learn boating skills and conduct research on the river. They monitor local wildlife, measure bacteria levels and grow oysters and seaweed that help filter bacteria out of the water.
"It provides a platform for them to really make an impact and care about something," Green said. "They can have a great time on the river, but also (have) a chance to change it and to make it better."
The group also brings the community together on the river, offering free rowing to the public on Saturdays through the summer.
A lifetime membership
Rocking the Boat serves more than 3,000 people a year through its broad community programs.
Beginning in ninth grade, students can apply for the group's core youth programs, which offer opportunities over multiple years.
Working in the shop or on the water, participants learn to use all kinds of tools and sharpen their math and science skills. They set goals, build self-confidence and develop leadership, communication and problem-solving abilities.
"This is a real way to connect to kids and give them a sense of purpose and value and a reason for learning," Green said.
Students also receive comprehensive support from a social worker to address issues, learn life skills, finish high school and apply to college or trade school. Alumni continue to receive support through college; a number of them are hired as program assistants.
This year, Green said, all 12 seniors in the program graduated high school and are headed to college.
Alyssa Colon is one of them. She joined Rocking the Boat three years ago when she was seeking an artistic outlet.
"I really had a bad attitude about high school. I didn't like going," she said.
The 18-year-old now credits the program with her acceptance to the Rhode Island School of Design, which she will attend this fall.
"The program has taught me that I can take on any challenge. I've applied so many of the skills that I learned here," she said. "If I wasn't part of this, I don't know where I would be."
Green said he is inspired every day knowing his efforts are helping students like Colon tap into their potential.
"They can really go anywhere and do anything. They've already got what it takes," he said. "They just need to put it to work."
Want to get involved? Check out the Rocking the Boat website at www.rockingtheboat.org and see how to help.