BY MARY ANNE HASTINGS - Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. - Chinese proverb
I was surprised at the overwhelming positive response when I first suggested the idea of bringing a team of children from the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home (FUMCH) to fish in the Gasparilla Island Kids Classic Tarpon Tournament, to our Mission Committee and Pastor Brian Brightly at the Boca Grande United Methodist Church (BGUMC) back in January. Our church supports the home through monetary donations and other gifts but I wanted to do something a little different and offer some of the kids a taste of our island.
As it turned out, coming up with the idea and getting support from our community was the easy part. The Missions Committee and a few generous donors provided the funding and housing for a team of four children and two chaperones. The hard part was that all of the children at FUMCH fall under the regulations of Florida Children and Family Services and while regulations are necessary and good things, they are also difficult things to maneuver when you’re trying something a little out of the ordinary.
Capt. Sandy Melvin, who runs the tournament every year, was on board with me from the very beginning. Capt. Sandy wanted to see this team fish in the tournament and with guidance from him and Melina Chaplin, we navigated through the red tape.
Our boys were required to wear life jackets at ALL times, no exceptions. That makes it a little difficult to reel in a large fish but thanks to Chad Lach, that problem was solved. Our boys are also required to have a lifeguard present on the boat and a huge thank you to Tracy Banks who volunteered to be a lifeguard/observer for the tournament. Without her, it would have all fallen apart.
Housing the boys was another sticky issue but Pastor Brightly came up with the perfect solution and the boys and chaperones camped out in the youth room at our church.
After a four-hour drive across Florida, our team arrived the evening before the tournament. I honestly didn’t know who or what to expect. FUMCH is home to children of all ages, and many of them with behavioral challenges. I had been so busy making the arrangements I didn’t have time to think (or worry) if there would be any problems. I met the group, showed them around the church, and then we walked over to Sisters restaurant to have some pizza.
I was pleasantly surprised at how polite they were, not to mention respectful and grateful for the chance to be here. They were also smart. Really, really smart. I learned quite a bit over the weekend in the presence of these 9- to 14-year-olds and I was impressed. I made it a point not to ask about their family situations but they did volunteer that they were two sets of brothers and two of the boys were part of four siblings at FUMCH, one of whom had been adopted. Enough said. It would not be the first time my heart would melt over the next three days. View More images >>
On Saturday, the boys enjoyed all the activities leading up to the tournament and they not only enjoyed the Mote Aquarium, they had in-depth discussions with the Mote staff about the exhibit. I’m bragging a little here, but they really are bright boys.
I dropped everyone off at the Boathouse where they met up with our captain for the day, Capt. Mike Reark was in charge for the next four hours and while I did not go on the boat with them, I did get to hear all about the tournament when they returned.
Thank you so much to Capt. Mike. We did not bring a tarpon in, but I understand Capt. Mike was loaded up with live crabs for the next few weeks. The boys really enjoyed scooping those crabs up for him. We even landed a 10-pound grouper, which was the highlight of the day. That night over dinner I listened to the fishing stories and knew we had done a really, really good thing.
On Sunday, we took the group to lunch at the Pink, then to the Lighthouse Museum so the boys could see the Pass from land and get an idea of where they had been the day before. Of course, they absorbed every bit of information the museum had to offer on the marine life in the Gulf and animals in our area.
Eventually, it came time to say a very bittersweet goodbye. Isaiah, Chris, Kamal and Mark had an incredible time and I was privileged to be able to enjoy it through their eyes. They had never been to a place like Boca Grande but they made it, and Boca Grande opened her arms to them. I can never thank enough all of the people who stopped to chat with and encourage them, or offered them souvenirs.
There was never a moment when they didn’t feel welcome here.
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