Cast & Blast

Kids with disabilities find fish, friendship at annual event

Remember when you had your first child? Counting his fingers and toes, making sure everything was as it should be. What if something was not quite right, and you were told that your child was handicapped? I can't fathom what would go through my mind at that moment, but one thing is certain -- your life would instantly change. You would no longer be just a parent, but a lifelong caregiver.

So, why am I writing about children with special needs and the struggle their parents face? Last weekend I was fortunate enough to once again participate in Fishing With Friends, a day devoted to children of all ages with a variety of disabilities doing what I like best -- fishing. Talk about a "feel good" day -- I am still grinning from ear to ear.

The brainchild of Capt. Fuzzy Davis, this year's Fishing With Friends marked the 16th anniversary of the marvelous event. I am proud to say I've been there for each and every one. It works like this: Local charter captains donate their boats and time and take the kids fishing. Then there is a great feed and every child gets a trophy, making each of them feel like a real winner.

This year a record 21 charter boats participated. Arriving around 8:30 a.m. at the Hilton Head Boathouse, it is quite the scene. Boats everywhere, some rafted together three deep, the kids wearing bright orange life vests -- it's a madhouse. But what really gets me is the gentle hand our normally burly charter captains display as they gather the kids. The sense of excitement is contagious.

I have taken out Blufftonian Riley Lewis every year since he was a young boy. Now in his 20s, Riley is an absolute hoot. The day usually starts with a hug -- something many of the kids give, especially those that have participated before. It's fun to watch some of these small kids in the arms of big, tough charter captains. It sort of reminds me of King Kong and Fay Wray.

As soon as the boats leave the dock, a sparkle glows in the eyes of the kids onboard. Pelicans and dolphins always draw shouts of glee. I think of the challenges the children and their parents face every day, and how this simple act of kindness -- taking them fishing -- makes such an impression. It makes me want to do it more than once a year.

The wind was honking pretty good that day, so all the boats had to do their best to find spots that were tucked away out the wind. I was able to find one of those spots and we started to fish. Though the fishing wasn't red hot, Riley did manage to catch several redfish, a trout or two and a couple of blowfish. I have spoiled him in past years with big redfish but it didn't seem to make any difference that we didn't crush them this year. He just liked being out on the water. Nearby, another Fishing With Friends boat landed a big redfish and you could hear that little girl's scream of delight from a mile away. I'm amazed how the simplest thing can bring so much joy.

It was at the luncheon and awards ceremony that I could really judge how important this day was for these kids. One shy boy that I had met earlier that morning was now talking a mile a minute. "I caught a spot tail bass! You know how big it was?" With arms stretched out as far as they could go, he continued, "It was this big! I wanted to keep him, but the man said I would go to jail -- he was that big!" How could you not love that kind of enthusiasm?

I often think I missed my calling of working with children with special needs. Even with the difficulties that surround them, these kids can be so loving. I know like anyone else, they have their good days and their bad days, but one thing is for sure: Fishing With Friends is not just a good day, it's a great day.