Apollo Beach, Fla. — Over 250 youth and adults turned out for Take Kids Fishing Day at Suncoast Youth Conservation Center (SYCC) in Apollo Beach, Florida, on March 12, despite Friday’s weather bulletin indicating gale force winds, heavy rain, and a tornado watch.
“It was the worst weather we’ve had in a long time. We thought about cancelling, but we never give up—we like to do good things for the community,” said Keven Barber, Ironworkers Local 397 Financial Secretary-Treasurer/Business Agent who organized the event. “We had quite a few kids fishing in the rain, so volunteers went out with them. It was worth it to see the kids enjoying the outdoors and experiencing something for the first time.”
Hosted by the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) and Ironworkers Local 397, the free community event aimed to introduce youth to saltwater fishing from the boardwalk and fishing pier constructed by union volunteers at SYCC in 2019.
The wheelchair-accessible structure was the result of a multi-year community service project organized by the USA through its Work Boots on the Ground conservation program. It flanks a restored saltwater pond and marsh adjacent to the SYCC’s 6,000-square-foot education facility.
When lightning and thunder drove most participants into the facility, SYCC staff were prepared with eight education stations including fish tagging, fish crafts, knot tying, fish measuring, fish puzzles, a touch tank and more.
During breaks in the weather, participants headed outdoors where 22 union volunteers from Ironworkers Locals 397 and 7, Roofers Local 123, and UA Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290 along with USA and SYCC staff assisted the excited young anglers, each of whom received a free fishing rod and reel along with other goodies.
Many of the kids who attended had never fished before, and several of them had special needs. This facility and event afforded them the opportunity to experience fishing in a safe, controlled environment with knowledgeable mentors and volunteers. Luca June (Junie), a 5-year-old boy who was born blind, attended the event with his mom. June immediately warmed to USA Executive Director and CEO Scott Vance and continually grabbed his hand for Vance to show him how to fish and where the water was. When he caught a big drum, he put his ear close to the fish to listen to the sound it made.
“I’ve been doing conservation outreach events for nearly 30 years, and this event was one of the most emotional and impactful experiences I’ve ever had,” Vance said. “The fact that these kids and their families braved gale force winds and driving rain to learn to fish was both encouraging and humbling. The opportunity to help kids like Junie catch their first fish touched me deeply. Junie’s fearless attitude and energy stole my heart and reaffirmed why our mission is so vitally important.”
Kathy Guindon, director of SYCC, experienced the perfect scenario for recruiting new anglers at Saturday’s event.
“I helped some families who had recently moved here from India at our casting station. One girl struggled with casting initially but ended up catching her first fish—the biggest silver jenny I’ve ever seen,” Guindon said. “Her father told me that seeing the kids fishing made him want to learn to fish, so they could continue to do it as a family. When I explained how fishing licenses support conservation education and research, he was impressed and said they were going to get licenses.”
A scout troop also attended the event. One 15-year-old girl from the troop was very quiet and fished at a distance from everyone else. USA Executive Assistant Cassie Allen and Vance spent extra time assisting her until she caught her first fish.
“She immediately had the biggest smile,” Allen said. “Her troop leader came up to me after she left with the sincerest look and said, ‘I can’t thank you guys enough for spending time with Angel. She has not stopped talking about it. This will forever change her life.’”
The Suncoast event was part of a series of free, community-based Take Kids Fishing Day events, sponsored by Humana, organized through the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground program with support from USA national partners Provost Umphrey Law Firm and Carhartt.
Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA): The USA is a union-dedicated, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose members hunt, fish, shoot and volunteer their skills for conservation. The USA is uniting the union community through conservation to preserve North America’s outdoor heritage. For more information, visit www.unionsportsmen.org or connect on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Work Boots on the Ground (WBG): WBG is the USA’s flagship conservation program that brings together union members willing to volunteer their time and expertise to conservation projects that improve and enhance public access to the outdoors, conserve wildlife habitat, restore America’s parks and mentor youth in the outdoors. The USA’s Work Boots on the Ground program works closely with federal, state and local agencies and other conservation groups to provide manpower needed to complete critical projects that may otherwise go undone.