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Children with disabilities enjoy a day of saltwater fishing thanks to Fish for Life

June 17, 2010 | 10:41 am

Jim Holden (front, left) and some of the anglers on the inaugural Fish For Life trip.
A special group of anglers recently went out for a chartered day of saltwater fishing aboard the 95-foot vessel Dana Pride out of Dana Wharf Sportfishing.

The group included many who have never been fishing, or on a boat -- 33 special needs children, mostly ages 13 to 16, who were treated to a day on the ocean thanks to Fish for Life, a nonprofit organization that all began with a lunchtime conversation.

"I've been taking a friend's son, Jeffrey Kutcher, who has cerebral palsy, out to lunch for the past four years," Fish for Life founder Jim Holden told Outposts. "I was telling Jeff about a recent fishing trip I had been on and he just lit up like a Christmas tree."

After seeing Kutcher's reaction, Holden's brainchild was born.

"On the way home I thought 'Man, wouldn't it be neat to get Jeffrey out on a fishing trip.' And then I thought, 'Hey, why not take a whole boatload of special needs kids, and why limit it to cerebral palsy?"

Holden, 56, went and spoke with Donna Kalez, general manager of Dana Wharf Sportfishing, which immediately offered the use of a vessel, captain and crew. Kalez also suggested Holden partner with Friends of Rollo, which provides marine awareness fishing trips for children from all walks of life, concentrating on disadvantaged, disabled, at-risk, and children from low-income households.

Word about the upcoming trip went out, and in less than a day the boat was full, families with children who have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or autism jumping at the idea of a day at sea.

Elias Bentancourt and his father Earl enjoying the day aboard the Dana Pride. "We wanted the kids to feel exceptionally special, so we rolled out the red carpet for them, literally," said Holden. "Our goal was to give these kids an adventure they wouldn't typically get to enjoy -- a day on the ocean catching fish and experiencing all of its wonders, including dolphins, birds, sea lions and the motion and the beauty of the ocean."

And roll out the red carpet they did. A slew of sponsors came forward to help make the inaugural voyage enjoyable -- renowned marine life artist Wyland came out for the send-off and donated signed prints; area restaurants and supermarkets donated food and local companies provided caps, jackets and other prizes and giveaways.

Holden also hooked up each group of anglers with a Fishing Team Leader, who helped make the day both more enjoyable and safer by lending a hand with baiting hooks, landing fish and ensuring that safe and responsible angling practices were followed.

"This trip was about fishing but it's so much more, it's about loving these kids," Holden said enthusiastically. "Fish for Life is about love and action and having the community come together to share with these kids and their parents, who deserve special recognition, too, for the sacrifices they have made strictly for the love of their child."

And the trip was enjoyed and appreciated by the parents. Bonnie Smith, the mother of a son who has autism, posted the following comment on the Fish for Life guest comment board:

I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for a wonderful experience. My husband Tom and our son Chris had a fabulous time on the boat. It means so much to families like ours to know that people care. We do not live typical lives and find even the most ordinary tasks to be challenging sometimes. You and your crew looked beyond the obstacles to see the value in the experience and expanded the horizons of so many in the process. You are a blessing and we are forever grateful.

Hopefully it will be the first of many fishing excursions held by Fish for Life. Holden is hoping for more sponsors and donations to assist with future trips out of Dana Wharf. His dreams don't stop there though -- Holden would like to expand Fish for Life to include sportfishing trips from San Diego to San Francisco, and perhaps even farther, spreading nationwide.

"I'm hoping perhaps the likes of Oprah [Winfrey] or Ellen [DeGeneres] or one of those shows will be interested in endorsing Fish for Life, and help take it national," Holden added.

And that would be pretty special indeed.

-- Kelly Burgess

Photos, from top: Jim Holden, left front, and some of the anglers on the inaugural Fish For Life trip.

Elias Bentancourt and his father, Earl, enjoying the day aboard the Dana Pride.

Credit: Frank Armstrong / Frank Armstrong Photography

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