On a gray Sunday morning, 26 children with disabilities gathered with their chaperones and volunteers at the Dana Wharf to set off on a special fishing trip.
Before families and volunteers boarded the Dana Pride, each kid had a moment to strut down the red carpet that was rolled down the gangway.
A few of the kids and young adults danced their way down the red carpet as Fish for Life Founder Jim Holden introduced them and played a snippet of their favorite songs.
Through the Dana Point-based nonprofit Fish for Life, kids with disabilities and their families are given the opportunity to cruise out of the Dana Point Harbor and spend the day fishing. For many of the attendees, it’s the first time they’ve ever caught a fish.
Starting at 9 a.m. on Sunday, June 4, the nonprofit kicked off its first fishing trip of the year, allowing community members, board members and dignitaries to give speeches off the stern of the Dana Pride.
Donna Kalez of Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching introduced the Dana Pride crew and shared the history of the Dana Wharf.
“For our entire 52 years, we have loved to take kids out to experience the beautiful ocean and to catch their first fish. How many of you have never caught a fish before?” Kalez asked the crowd of families waiting to board the boat. “You’re going to catch your first fish today. Once you go out with us today, you’re going to be in our Fish for Life family forever.”
Fish and Wildlife Marine Biologists Carrie Wilson and Elizabeth Hellmers joined the fishing trip to answer any questions kids might have about wildlife and to help kids fill out their fishing passport books.
The Nick Pasquale Foundation sponsored Sunday’s fishing trip in memory of Nick Pasquale, the San Clemente football player who was struck and killed by a car in 2013.
“We lost my brother 10 years ago and created this foundation to give out athletic scholarships and grants and also support like-minded foundations such as Fish for Life,” said AJ Pasquale, Nick Pasquale’s brother.
“We’re honored to support and fund our second trip here and plan on continuing to do this for years ahead and help the growth and touch lives one boat at a time, as Jim says,” Pasquale continued.
Dana Point Mayor Mike Frost thanked Holden and the Fish for Life board of directors on behalf of the City Council.
“You represent Dana Point really well,” Frost said. “To the families and all the kids out there, not only do I hope you guys have a fun time here, I hope you find Dana Point a welcoming, friendly neighborhood community, and certainly, we’d love to see you back.”
Fish for Life Chief Financial Officer Dave Shahoian led the group in a prayer ahead of the fishing trip, and San Clemente’s Taylor Peterson sang the National Anthem.
Fishing Team Leader Tyler Wilde, Holden’s son-in-law, conducted the safety demonstration off the stern of the boat.
Wilde has volunteered with Fish for Life for 11 years. His favorite part of the fishing trips, other than the actual fishing, is the excitement he sees when the kids walk down the red carpet.
“You go out there for the kids, but at the end of the day, you go out with the bigger reward,” Wilde said. “You always come home with a smile on your face, and it makes you feel how grateful you are for what you have.”
As a fishing team leader, Wilde sees the joy of a kid’s first catch first-hand.
“With fishing team leaders, you have two special needs kids that you basically coach and fish for, and so you do everything in your power to kind of hook in hand and let them experience reeling in a fish,” Wilde said. “Most of the time, for the first time.”
“Each reaction is different, but they’re ecstatic,” Wilde continued. “Their eyes brighten up, and the smiles—you’ve never seen them smile like that before it seems like. You see the parent’s faces of how happy their kids are. It’s really rewarding to be able to do that.”
In the afternoon, the weather warmed, the sun burned through the marine layer, and the fish were biting.
“The fishing was superb,” Holden said, speaking with the Dana Point Times on Monday, June 5. “Shortly after anchor, the fishing, it was just nonstop all day long.”
Every child caught a fish during the fishing trip, Holden said.
“We have some really good anglers on board, and we certainly ask throughout the day, ‘Has anyone not caught a fish?’ and we make sure to hook them up,” Holden said. “Yesterday was so plentiful, that wasn’t an issue.”
The special fishing trips are not just therapeutic for the kids, but also for their caretakers, Holden added.
“After every trip, I believe, the kids, the parents, the volunteers, everybody gets off the boat with such a deep sense of gratitude,” Holden said. “These trips are just tremendous therapy for the kids and their caregivers, their parents just to see their kids having a great day and being cared for and loved.”
Just after lunch, the Dana Pride came across a “mermaid” in the water, stopping by to say hello.
“We surprise them with a diver and mermaid, pirates, and it’s just a ton of fun,” Holden said.
On the way back to the Dana Point Harbor, Fish for Life holds its award ceremony with fishing team leaders sharing a few words about each child. This is also an opportunity for each kid to hold onto the microphone and express themselves.
When the Dana Pride returned to its dock, the mermaid was in the harbor waiting so that kids could get a chance to take photos with her, but not before fighting off a “pirate” in the harbor.
Fish for Life board member and actor Kyle Pacek fought off the pirate with the help of the kids, armed with water guns, Holden said.
During the event, Holden also announced the nonprofit’s upcoming expansion after 14 years of offering special needs kids the fishing trip of a lifetime.
Though Fish for Life got its start in the Dana Point Harbor, it also offers fishing trips out of Wildwood Crest, New Jersey and San Diego. Starting next year, the nonprofit plans to expand to Santa Barbara and Emeryville, California, as well as Florida.
“Our vision for Fish for Life is really to scale this program to ocean-bearing ports all around the country and beyond,” Holden said.
The next fishing trip of the year is scheduled for July 16.
For those interested in registering their child for a fishing trip or to volunteer, visit fishforlife.org or call 949.285.8819. To donate or sponsor a fishing trip, visit fishforlife.org.