‘Just Gone Fishin’ provides exceptional day for Exceptional Anglers

‘Just Gone Fishin’ provides exceptional day for Exceptional Anglers

After a busy day of fishing at Exceptional Anglers, little Leigha Dupree is ready to hit the pier at Orange Beach. So says her mother, Christa Dupree, who waited with bated breath for her kindergartener’s reaction to catching a fish for the first time. Leigha exclaimed, “It’s so slimy.”

“When Leigha caught one, she was ecstatic,” said Christa, as Leigha rested at her side. “I was really hoping she’d love fishing and see what it’s all about. Her uncle loves fishing, and we want to do that in June. It will be our first time to go to Orange Beach.”

A special opportunity for students Giving children with special needs the chance to enjoy a day of fishing and other new activities is the whole point of Exceptional Anglers, said Mike Clelland, coordinator of the stewardship program for Environmental Affairs – Alabama Power.

The event drew 1,200 Jefferson and Shelby County schoolchildren to the “Just Gone Fishin’, Not Wishin’” program at Oak Mountain State Park on May 13‑15. Like Leigha, many of the kids took their first try at angling with one-on-one help from a volunteer. Many went kayaking, jumped in a bouncy house, had their faces painted or sang karaoke with local musicians. The children had their fill of fried fish, hushpuppies, hotdogs and snacks. Christa Dupree was thrilled.

“The atmosphere is great, it’s definitely inviting,” said Dupree, whose daughter attends Fultondale Elementary School. “Everyone is friendly. The volunteer who helped us was very patient.”

“It takes a village”

Indeed, the event “takes a village” of volunteers, noted Jerry Moss, coordinator of Just Gone Fishin’ through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).

“If the volunteers didn’t help with this, we couldn’t do this,” said Moss, who said he left retirement to assist. “There’s so much demand to allow all these students to attend. They rotate the schools because of the limitations on volunteers. The kids look forward to this all year.”

More than 100 Alabama Power employees from several departments, the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) and Energizers retiree organization helped, along with volunteers from other corporate groups. Volunteers outfitted children with life vests, baited poles and served as fishing coaches, while others cooked the catch and did artwork.

For the love of fishing

Environmental Affairs Specialist and APSO member Richard Brown relished sharing his love of fishing with youngsters. Brown, who can be found on the Coosa River nearly every weekend, passed the joy of angling to his 16-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter as they were growing up.

“Seeing the smiles on these kid’s faces and helping them do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do” is why Brown has volunteered for 15 years. He helped seven children catch at least two or three fish.

Dr. Pam Rush, a Jefferson County Adaptive Physical Education teacher, helped out wherever she could, assisting students in fishing and demonstrating how to twirl the hula hoop. Two of Rush’s co-workers, Adaptive PE teachers Wanda Westbrook and Treva McDougal, have organized tournament logistics among the various schools for 21 years.

“You look around and see these kids having fun,” said Dr. Rush, who travels between four Jefferson County schools to improve the motor skills of special needs students. “Some of them are touching a fish for the first time. To a lot of people, this doesn’t mean a lot. But to us, helping them conquer their fears and actually catch a fish, it’s very rewarding.”

“I’ve seen grown men cry here before,” Rush said. “It touches your heart in a way that nothing else can.”

The gift that keeps on giving

Clelland, who has taken part in Just Gone Fishin’ for nine years, said it’s not a job to him, though he devotes many hours to planning and coordinating the three-day event.

“Our company has always given plenty of support to Exceptional Anglers,” he said. For instance, the Alabama Power Foundation gave a donation that helped cover the purchase of fish, students’ T-shirts, fishing tackle and bait.

The gift allowed Environmental Affairs to buy 6,000 bass and catfish from Davis Fish Farms and American Sport Fish Hatchery. Clelland and ADCNR staff stocked an enclosed area of the lake that is less than 1 acre, making it easier for every child to catch a fish.

The efforts of so many are “the world to these kids,” said Crystal Cotton, whose 11-year-old son, Dylan, was attending for his fifth year. She said Dylan’s specialty is “belting out country songs with the band.”

“He just loves this, it makes his year,” said Cotton, a Morris resident. “Next year, he’s moving to North Jefferson Middle School for sixth grade, and I hope he’ll be able to come here again. It’s an awesome day.”

This post was originally published on Alabama NewsCenter.