Watching the pot-bellied men dressed in flannel and rubber boots march up the gangway of Burton Chace Park in April holding slimy halibut during the Marina del Rey Halibut Derby, it was interesting to consider that later in the year their participation would be benefiting many organizations designed to broaden the horizon for children in youth programs.
Every week during the summer, the Marina del Rey Anglers host fishing trips for a variety of different causes throughout Los Angeles, hoping to make a difference in the lives of kids who have never or rarely had a fishing experience.
From funds raised during the tournament, the club charters the 64-foot Betty-O for trips that introduce young people to the marine environment and the sport of recreational fishing. They host at-risk teens and autistic and handicapped kids and sponsor a variety of other benevolent programs throughout the city.
On Thursday, July 24th, the Anglers took out a group of 23 Southern California blind children from the Braille Institute for a trip into Santa Monica Bay that the organization felt would be an important experience for them in their pursuit to instill confidence and independence in kids from the institute.
“We want to introduce the children to a new activity that they may never have a chance to do on their own,” said Rocio Vallejos, of the Braille Institute. “We cover computer learning on down to operating a microwave. We try to deal with every area that a child might need in their life to become more independent.”
On a perfect summer morning, students from the institute boarded the boat — some for the first time, others had made the trip in past years — all hoping to feel the tug on the end of the line and revel in the excitement that a catch instills.
Marina del Rey Anglers members Larry Brown and Ken Feldman, who lead and organize the fishing trips, made their rounds around the boat, encouraging everyone with a contagious positivity.
Some kids were asking about what the surroundings looked like and others seemed content just having fun with friends.
Each child was assigned a mentor who would help bait hooks and give advice.
But no amount of counseling would coax any fish into the area and soon the decision was made to reel in the lines and make for a more fruitful spot.
A few miles over, it was a whole different story. In a matter of minutes poles were bending and kids hollering. Sculpin, halibut and mackerel were all getting yanked from the ocean as mentors guided the young fishermen through the process.
Staff members of the Braille Institute sat back and watched as their kids experienced what might be everlasting memories.
“Some of the kids have never been to the ocean, they’ve never felt how a boat rocks or how the waves move,” said Vallejos. “I consider these trips very important for the positive development of the children.”
In this third year in the relationship between the institute and the Marina del Rey Anglers, the mentors are assigned to the same child they had the year before in the hope of building a rapport and trust with each other. In the case of blind children, this trust is especially important and both parties recognize it.
Early in the trip, Alfred, a young blind angler, was fishing with his mentor Streeter, an older southern gentleman, when he got a bite. In another minute, with Streeter’s help, Alfred was landing a fish as he screamed in unbridled emotion, “I got a fish! I got a fish!”
It’s moments like these that organizers understand are what makes these voyages valuable. In addition to learning more about a sport and gaining a deeper understanding of the marine environment, the outing provides an avenue for particular social inter- actions that can reap rewards later in life.
“The other part of these types of activities is it exposes the kids to volunteers,” says Vallejos. “We want the kids to understand that these people are giving of themselves and we hope that one day they will give back.”
During the course of the afternoon it was easy to forget that the kids were without sight. Many of the little girls were repulsed by slippery scaly fish, many of the boys were overjoyed by them and some kids were indifferent, just like any other group of young people.
“The mission of the institute is to help them live a fulfilling life just like their sighted peers,” Alvarez says. “So with these events, I tell them, make the best of it or just let the opportunity go by. I tell them that vision should never be a barrier in enjoying their life.”
On the way home Alfred, who had caught two fish that afternoon, smiled and said to one of the mentors, “I’m happy to be here with you guys. I can’t wait to come back next year.”