Reeling With Memorable Moments

On a beautiful day in mid-May, the boys couldn’t stop horsing around. Running on the soft sand close to the lake’s edge and shoving each other playfully, they just couldn’t stay still. But when the boys began fishing, aided by scores of volunteers, park staff, parents, and grandparents, they settled down and became focused on their lines until the moment they caught a fish and the jubilant boasting began. The Special Kids Derby was in full swing.

Since 1983, the East Bay Regional Park District in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in California has coordinated hundreds of Special Kids Derbies to provide opportunities to children with special needs and disabilities and to help those in disadvantaged situations “discover outdoor activities” in the district’s regional parks.

Making An Impact

“I figure we have impacted between 30,000 and 35,000 kids over the 31 years the Special Kids Derby program has been running,” says Jim Grassi, an author, national motivational speaker, and founder of the program. He is the owner and president of Let’s Go Fishing Ministries and its sister corporation, Let’s Go Fishing Productions, a charitable foundation that sponsors and facilitates the derbies. His foundation also provides the equipment and the volunteers who lend their expertise in teaching the fine points of fishing.

Last year, according to the park district, about 715 children and adults, as well as senior citizens and veterans throughout the East Bay, participated in four Special Kids Derbies and a separate “Fishin’ n’ Fun Day” for adults with disabilities. The diversity of the participants was equally great, in age and ethnicity. According to district figures, 55 percent of the participants in 2013 were Latino, 15 percent were African American, 25 percent were Caucasian, and approximately 5 percent were Asian.

This year, the park district has coordinated two Fishing Derbies so far, and provided over 300 children with access to the activity, along with special days full of outdoor events. These include the park’s Mobile Fish Exhibit, an aquarium on wheels, where kids can learn about marine life while they catch fish at one of four lakes in the region: Shadow Cliffs in Pleasanton, Lake Temescal in Oakland, Quarry Lakes in Fremont, and Contra Loma Reservoir in Antioch. To make sure all participants have the opportunity to catch a fish, the lakes were stocked with trout.

A Strong Foundation

The Fishing Derbies are part of the park district’s Campership Program, funded by the Regional Parks Foundation. Last year, the foundation granted $15,500 to finance the derbies. But much of the ground work, food, boat rides, and lawn games are facilitated by hundreds of volunteers from groups as diverse as the area Lion’s Clubs, which host a pancake breakfast at each derby; the Rotary Club; the Kiwanis Club; employees from; and students from Irvington High School’s Linked Learning program in Fremont.

“We strive to create a very safe, very fun environment for people who live in less than perfect conditions,” says Kevin Fox, Recreation Supervisor with the park district, who began officially coordinating the derbies in 2011 after many years of helping with the events as a volunteer or “fishing buddy.”

Fox supervises and coordinates the volunteers, who are in charge of monitoring the children one on one, engaging in conversations with senior citizens, and ensuring that their enjoyment is conducted with safety and security. Besides arts and crafts and reading activities, a naturalist leads a nature area. The district also brings other animals to the derbies besides fish. Horses, a three-legged dog, and snakes have made appearances for participants to pet and learn about animals that also have special needs. In the past, the police and fire departments have been part of the events, with staff bringing in fire trucks and mobile units to talk about safety and the services they provide in the parks and for the communities.

The inspiration for this program was born from Grassi’s love for and fascination with fishing that began when he started working with the park district as a supervisor at Lake Chabot in 1966. At that time, he met a local dentist, Dr. Clinton Lee, who, just like Grassi, had relatives with disabilities. Both Lee and Grassi enjoyed fishing and “had a heart for people with disabilities.” Soon the two men talked about creating a way for people with disabilities to enjoy fishing just as they did.

Both men raised funds to develop the first fishing dock for people with disabilities at Lake Temescal, followed by a similar dock at Lake Chabot. That left only the task of bringing in people to make good use of the special fishing docks. And plenty did.

In reminiscing about the early days of the event, Grassi recalls a reluctant volunteer in the second year. As chief of police of the city of San Leandro, this man was very busy and not particularly excited to donate his time surrounded by children. One day the chief was partnered with a child in a wheelchair. By the end of the 3-hour event, as the child was leaving, Grassi saw tears on the chief’s face. “He couldn’t believe how this program had impacted him,” Grassi says.

Enthusiasm Spreads

To select participants, the park district sends invitations to special-education classes in local elementary schools at the beginning of the school year, as well as to local senior centers from Livermore to Antioch. The veterans are chosen with some help from the Wounded Warriors program. The schools and senior centers choose the participants, and the district provides staff to supervise the events as well as transportation through the Parks Express bus service. 

In October, the park district will hold fishing derbies for three consecutive days: one day for children, the second for seniors, and the third for veterans. Fox estimates at least 150 children and 115 adults will have the opportunity to enjoy nature and catch their dinner. Fox adds that for many of the participants, especially the seniors, “this is the only outdoor activity they have all year.”

For others, as Grassi recalls, this is an opportunity to change lives: “In 1992 there was a quadriplegic 16- to 19-year-old boy who caught this big trout with a special harness we attached to his wheelchair. He would use mainly his mouth to push a button to reel in the fish. Once we had the big fish out, the boy had it on his lap like it was a pet, and then he said, ‘I caught a fish!’ The teacher who knew and accompanied him told me that this boy had never spoken more than one word in all the time she had known him, and right there he just said with this big grin on his face, ‘I caught a fish!’ That’s just powerful!”

Grassi and Fox both remember a number of dramatic moments that made an indelible impact on them and in many of the volunteers who have helped year after year to make these derbies a success. “It’s a team-building event,” says Fox.  And besides the human and emotional side of the derbies, he says the participants “get an appreciation of where food comes from.”

Although Grassi now lives in Idaho, he has left a legacy in California and the park district. To sustain the LGF Foundation efforts, he counts on a number of coordinators in the Bay Area to continue working with the district to help children and adults with disabilities. Taff Vidales, one of the California coordinators, wants people from all ethnic groups and financial levels to continue to volunteer their time to this cause. “I want to encourage anyone who has a giving heart and time to spare to contact us or the park district.”

Fox and the hundreds of volunteers who make the Fishing Derbies possible feel that these events make America better. “All the volunteers give back to people who can’t do it themselves. They make really unselfish moments. It’s pretty sweet!”

Ana Machuca-Cole is a freelance writer and teacher in the Bay Area. She is an avid hiker in the regional, state, and national parks.