Despite the threat of gale-force winds and driving rain, Take Kids Fishing Day at the Suncoast Youth Conservation Center still made a profound impact on the hundreds of young people that attended – many who had never fished before, and several with special needs.
Hosted by the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) and Ironworkers Local 397, Take Kids Fishing Day is a free community event that introduces youth to saltwater fishing. The event took place Saturday, March 12, at the Suncoast Youth Conservation Center (SYCC) in Apollo Beach. There, over 250 children and their caregivers braved a powerful cold front to fish from a pier built by union volunteers in 2019.
Scott Vance, executive director and CEO for the Tennessee-based USA, said over 500 kids registered for the event in four weeks. While Vance’s organization spearheads similar projects around the nation, he said the Tampa Bay Take Kids Fishing Day caught him “a little flat-footed.”
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I have been doing outreach and conservation work for a long time,” he said. “I did not expect the diversity, and I did not expect the number of families to come out to this event that truly was interested in learning, were truly interested in the opportunity, and quite honestly, could not have done this without that pier.”
Vance explained that his organization works with local unions throughout various markets across the country to help introduce kids to outdoor activities and conservation efforts.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) built the multimillion-dollar SYCC educational center. Vance called the facility great, but said it lacked fishing access, especially for the mobility-impaired. The FWC then came to USA with plans for a pier. USA took the plans, modified them, gathered several local building unions and contractors and set out to create a suitable structure for the 6,000 kids that visit annually.
“We had about 2,000 man-hours on that project, and it was 90% volunteer labor,” said Vance. “So, it’s a pretty amazing public-private partnership that put that fishing pier together and provided the opportunity.”
While USA and its volunteers finished the wheelchair-accessible pier in 2019, the Covid pandemic prevented the groups from hosting a Take Kids Fishing Day over the last two years. Out of all the projects that USA and their affiliated unions have worked on throughout the U.S., Vance said this one is most near and dear to their hearts.
In addition to children with special needs, Vance also relayed there were attendees from India, Somalia and Haiti – and some were refugees. He called the experience humbling and said opportunities like Saturday’s make up for dealing with all the things that drag him down as a CEO, but are a necessary part of the job title.
“But the thing that gets me out of bed every morning and gets me excited about doing this job is being able to touch their (children’s) lives and really change their trajectory,” he said. “Give them that experience that otherwise they wouldn’t have, and that’s what drives our volunteers.”
Ironworkers Locals 397 and 7, Roofers Local 123 and UA Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290 provided volunteers to assist SYCC and USA staff in teaching the young anglers. They gave the children free rods and reels, and endured the wind and rain (as many kids were too excited to pay the weather much mind).
Vance pointed out that many of the union volunteers gave up the opportunity to earn double-time at their respective job sites to teach these kids how to fish in a storm. He said these events impact the volunteers even more than the participants.
“I’ve got big ironworkers that are standing there crying crocodile tears,” he said. “That’s what we’re all here to do as humans, is to give back to each other.
“And it is just so rewarding to do that.”
Out of the hundreds of children and families at the event, Vance said one little boy, in particular, stole his heart. Luca June (Junie), 5, was born blind and immediately took an interest in Vance. Junie stayed by Vance’s side, continuously grabbing his hand and asking for directions on where to cast.
Vance explained that Junie’s mother adopted him from foster care when he was 2. At that time, Junie was non-responsive and non-verbal, nothing like the smart and energetic kid Vance was teaching to fish. Vance credited Junie’s mother for helping him transition from a non-functioning toddler to a fearless boy full of excitement for life.
Despite his inability to see, Vance said the young boy wanted to bait his hook, cast his line and reel the fish he caught without any assistance. Vance said he was “scared to death” Junie would jump in at any moment, as hearing and touching the water was stimulating for him. After catching a black drum, he even put his ear close to the fish to hear what sound it made.
Vance said Junie has stayed on his mind since leaving Apollo Beach, and he hopes they can keep in touch. He is also looking into getting Junie a guide dog through an affiliated charity. Despite Junie’s circumstances and the weather on their fishing day, Vance said watching the boy’s unbridled joy for the opportunity to fish made a lasting impact on the lives of several people.
“Everyone thinks we’re blessing the participants,” said Vance, his voice cracking with emotion. “We’re blessed by them.”
USA hopes to host an event at SYCC in the fall, and will hold another Take Kids Fishing Day next spring.