Jim Holden was searching for his life’s purpose when his friend’s son, who has cerebral palsy, asked if they could go fishing together.
Holden would take Jeffery to lunch every few months to catch up and talk about life. One afternoon in January 2009, Holden asked if there was anything else Jeffery would like to do for fun.
“Then I thought, ‘OK, well, why not take a boatload of special needs kids,’ ” Holden said. “That was the beginning of Fish for Life.”
After reaching out to the president of United Cerebral Palsy and Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching founder Don Hansen and his daughter, Donna Kalez, Fish for Life set off on its inaugural trip aboard the Dana Pride in May 2010.
“Our mission is, we’re bringing dignity, inclusion and new possibilities to special needs children,” Holden said. “I hope that families that come experience this realize, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ ”
The trips are free for the children and their families thanks to the nonprofit’s fundraisers and sponsors.
“I talk to (the parents), each and every one of them, before the trips, and they’re just so grateful for this, because they tend, at times, to feel like outcasts in society, looking for something ‘normal,’ such as fishing, for their kids to do,” Holden said. “Fish for Life is all about serving these kids in this population, and the demand is overwhelming.”
At 8 a.m., the kids check in and get a T-shirt. Fish for Life uses the stern of the boat as a podium for local speakers to say a few words ahead of the fishing trip’s launch. Then, the foundation rolls out a red carpet on the gangway for the kids to have a moment in the spotlight.
Prior to the trip, each kid will submit a bio that the Fish for Life team uses to introduce each kid as they walk down the red carpet.
“It’s just honoring them,” Holden said. “They’re so proud and so happy. They come down the red carpet through a line of volunteers.”
The boat leaves the harbor to the theme music from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department arranges a fire boat escort out of the harbor with sirens blaring.
The children are then split into fishing teams in which team leaders teach the children how to fish. Each fishing leader will generally have two kids and their chaperones, whom they care for throughout the day.
Each fishing trip usually takes 30 kids, with ages ranging from 8 years old to those in their early 20s. In Dana Point, Fish for Life will take anywhere from four to six trips a year, Holden said.
Also joining the crew aboard the ship are about 40 volunteers such as fishing team leaders, fishermen, foster kids and marine biologists, as well as members from the Wounded Warrior Project.
“We also involve non-special needs kids to serve appetizers, before and after—a nice buffet-style lunch,” Holden said. “That’s a tremendous life lesson for them. Also interacting with a whole variety of special needs conditions and breaking down stigmas about special needs kids.”
Marine biologists aboard the ship explain the difference between seals and sea lions, traits of dolphins and why so many dolphins and whales are spotted around the Dana Point coast.
“We ensure that everybody catches fish,” Holden said. “We have plenty of volunteer fishermen onboard, and our goal is to make sure that every child catches a fish. For the most part, it’s their first time fishing; in some cases, first time ever on a boat.”
For entertainment, the ship will often encounter pirates, mermaids and deep-sea divers.
Following the fishing trip, all the team leaders present the children with medallions. The team will then pass around a microphone and give the kids a chance to talk about the day.
“Some of the cases, they won’t say anything the whole day, they get the (microphone), and they’ll start singing,” Holden said.
The nonprofit is always looking to grow and improve. Fish for Life has therapists onboard to help educate the team post-trip.
“Are we missing any opportunities?” Holden asked of the ways Fish for Life reflects on how it can improve. “What else can we do? Are we doing something wrong? For example, real loud (noise) is not conducive for your lower-functioning autistic kids. So, we’re continually improving the program and adding more entertainment.”
Fish for Life will hold its last fishing trip of the year in Dana Point on Saturday, Sept. 17, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“The program is extremely feature-rich with all kinds of details and entertainment,” Holden said. “The benefits, the therapeutic impact of these trips is just amazing, for not only the kids, but the chaperones and for all the volunteers.
“Our hope is to then inspire others to get out there and bring some goodness into our world.”
Fish for Life will host its annual Texas Hold’em fundraiser on Oct. 8 at the McGowan Hall in San Clemente. All registered players will receive a three-quarter-day fishing trip pass from Dana Wharf Sportfishing.
More information about the nonprofit and how to participate or sign up can be found at fishforlife.org.