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Fishing for a Good Time

Morning of fishing awaits special needs children in first-of-its-kind event on Pohick Bay.

Ronald "Butch" Sickler loves to fish. The calm feeling he gets being on the water is a nice contrast from his day job, working for the Department of Homeland Security as a management and program analyst for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While doing a Google search one day, he came across the CAST for Kids program, based out of the state of Washington, which combines special needs children with fishermen for a morning of one-on-one boat fishing instruction.

"It's probably something many of these kids have never done in their lives," Sickler said.

Since its beginning in 1993, CAST for Kids has become a national event, offering fishing trips to 1,500 kids last year alone through 37 events in 20 states.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Sickler began putting together the inaugural event in Virginia, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 30 at Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton. After a few phone calls to some organizations that specialize in helping special needs children and their families, he quickly had more than 30 children signed up.

"I actually had a waiting list of 14 kids before I knew it," Sickler said.

The premise for the event is simple, he said: one child, one parent and a fisherman on a boat, floating in the water for a few hours on Saturday morning. Onvr the fishing is over, everyone gets together on shore for lunch, exhibits and games.

Sickler began contacting fishing organizations across Virginia and managed to secure three groups, Virginia Bass Federation Regions 1 and 9, Potomac Bass Masters of Virginia and Concerned Bass Anglers of Virginia, which will bring out boats and life jackets for all the novice anglers. He was able to get enough fishermen to agree to volunteer to provide boats for all 44 children.

"There are four or five kids that will be coming in wheelchairs and two of the fishermen coming out have donated their pontoon boats to us for the day," Sickler said. "There's been an unbelievable outpouring of support from the fishing community for this event."

Bruce Lee, chairman of the Concerned Bass Anglers group, said the decision to get involved came naturally.

"We want to give something back," he said. "The older you get, you look around and realize you need to be more community-minded."

Lee and his group of seven or eight fishermen will be making the drive up from Fredricksburg and Richmond for the CAST for Kids event, but Lee said the distance isn't what's important.

"We're going out to make sure these kids catch fish, it doesn't matter what kind," he said. "We think they'll be tickled pink just to be out there."

Tom McClean, a member of the Alexandria-based Potomac Bass Masters, said his group has been active in youth angling for years, so when Sickler visited their meeting earlier this spring, it was a quick unanimous decision to join.

After doing some research on the CAST for Kids Web site, McClean said the event on Pohick Bay looks to be the biggest one in the country this year.

"The only challenge we'll have is making sure the kids catch fish. That's hard for even professional anglers," McClean said.

MANY OF THE fishermen in McClean's group are used to having extra people in their boats during competitions, so having a special needs child and a parent in the boat won't be a distraction for them.

Fishing is a nice, relaxing activity for any child, McClean said, regardless of any special needs.

But the willingness of his group and the long list of sponsors Sickler has been able to secure for the event goes to prove the generosity of people in Northern Virginia, McClean said.

"The reception has been great. Having people like bass anglers who are serious about fishing and are willing to give up their own time and their boats to help give these kids this chance is fantastic," he said. "Everyone's doing this for the sake of giving back a little."

For parents of special needs children, the event is an opportunity for their children to get out with others like themselves for a day of fun.

"It's good for him to do things in a setting where he doesn't have to worry about what others are thinking of him," said Jennifer Dawson, a Fairfax mother of a 9-year-old son who has bipolar disorder.

She heard about CAST for Kids from McLean Bible Church's Access Ministry for special needs families.

Dawson said she'll be joining her son on the boat, a trip similar to one they took this summer.

"He's very excited about the fishing trip," she said of her son. "Living in this area, there's a lot of events for special needs kids, but I've never seen or heard of anything like this before. It's something different."

Marta Morrissey of Springfield said she first heard about the event through Eddie's Club, a recreation program for special needs children.

Her son, Ryan, 16, has autism, and she thinks a morning on the water will be soothing for him. She also appreciates the opportunity to teach him a skill that she can't give him herself.

"It's really kind of these people who are donating their boats and their skills," Marta Morrissey said. "Being able to take a day and go out on a boat is a nice, quiet activity. My son needs that, crowds make him nervous."

Eileen Goff said that although her husband, John, will be joining their 6-year-old daughter Jillian, she's looking forward to the event.

"It sounds like a great way for the kids to get out and have some fun," she said.

BEING AROUND other families with special needs children will help provide a chance for parents to talk as well, Goff said, giving a needed sense of community in a world where some parents feel alone.

"When you go to something like this, it gives you a chance to network and see you're not the only one going through this," she said.

Plus, it gives the children a chance to be away from the strict regimen many have in their daily lives.

"With special needs kids, there's always someone telling them what to do and it's therapy this and therapy that," Goff said. "We love to give her opportunities that she may not otherwise have, without requirements on a right or wrong way to do things."

After retiring from his government job next year, Sickler said he hopes to continue working with special needs children, maybe expanding next year's CAST event to include more families.

"It seems like no matter how much is done for these children, there's never enough, we always need more," he said.