Spreading joy through fishing

By DAVID RAINER / Guest Columnist

Seldom can an enthusiasm for fishing be found that can come even close to that experienced during the three-day Gone Fishin’, Not Just Wishin’ event at Oak Mountain State Park.

In fact, the volunteer fishing coaches for the event – which accommodates special needs children in Shelby and Jefferson counties – must be especially on guard for those anglers who might be a bit overzealous, according to Jerry Moss, Fisheries Supervisor of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Office in Northport who coordinates the event.

“The kids just love it,” Moss said. “Sometimes they get so excited that they’ll try to run into the water. So we have to be right with them when they’re fishing. There’s a lot of yelling and screaming going on, too. It’s just a great experience for everybody involved.”

The 2008 event, which was held May 7-9, is sponsored by Alabama Power Company, Alagasco, Consolidated Pipe, El Paso Southern Natural Gas and ADCNR. The event draws more than 500 children with special needs to Oak Mountain to fish in the park lake with the assistance of a host of volunteers, teachers and parents.

“It’s been a very successful event,” Moss said. “A lot of these coaches take personal leave time to come do this year after year. Sometimes they see the same kids and they get attached to them. And the kids really have a good time, too. Of course, these kids are all challenged. They have some type of special need that we try to make sure the coaches understand and accommodate their special needs. The special needs range from kids on cots and basically all they can is touch the rod and reel to others who have had experience fishing, and everything in between. We have quite a few kids in wheelchairs and they enjoy it just as much as the kids who are mobile.

“With this event they get to come out here and fish. We stock the lake extensively. We purchase the fish and some come from our hatchery. We try to make sure there are plenty of fish in here so the kids can just throw out with a little bait on their hooks and just about catch a fish every time they throw it out.”

Moss said the event is a highlight for the sponsors and volunteers, as well as the kids.

“We really look forward to this each year, and the kids point to it – the teachers tell us – the whole year,” he said. “It’s a special time for them. It’s the final event of the school year and they really get excited about it.”

The fishing is catch and release unless a fish is fatally hooked. Those fish are cooked for the volunteers.

“Nothing goes to waste,” Moss said. “And the Saturday after the final day of the kid’s event, Oak Mountain State Park opens this to the public and they can catch fish up to the creel limit.”

Dudley Reynolds, President and Chief Operating Officer at Alagasco, said participation in the event is especially important to the Birmingham company.

“Alagasco participates for a number of reasons, not the least of which is helping these young people,” Reynolds said. “But it also gives our employees a chance to connect with the community and contribute something that is consistent with our public service, which we take seriously at Alagasco.

“The joy of this event is to see the kids get outdoors and do something they don’t normally get to do. We hope this creates a moment of joy in their life, so we’re happy to be a part of it.”

Company Vice President Willard Bowers said Alabama Power Company has enjoyed sponsoring the event since its inception.

“We’ve been here since the beginning, 14 years,” Bowers said. “It’s a chance to do something for children. It’s a chance for our employees to come out and have the experience of doing something for the community. Everyone walks away a winner. If there’s anything we do in the community, helping kids and other people, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the reason we’re here.

“People who volunteer, many have been here the entire 14 years, they love it. They get a lot of self-satisfaction out of it.”

Parent Nancy Owen of Alabaster said the fishing event fills a need for her son that is rarely available.

“I have a son (Connor) who is severely autistic,” Owen said. “I believe this is the seventh time he has attended. It gives him a chance to enjoy the outdoors among a group of people who don’t look at him any differently. It allows him to enjoy something that most people see as everyday normal. It’s difficult for him to come out and do this without everybody staring at him. Here, he can be normal.

“It’s a chance for him to do something that enjoyable, and everybody is just a big family. We just appreciate the support of Alabama Power and Alagasco and the State Parks. It’s very heartwarming to see people that are accepting of children with special needs.”

As Richard Rouse of Consolidated Pipe put it, “We came just to help the kids out. That’s all we’re out here for.”

David Rainer is a weekly columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He can be reached at david.rainer@dcnr.alabama.gov