It was just beginning to get light outside on Feb. 29 as volunteers began to gather beneath the covered pavilion at Bell County’s Miller Park in Temple.
The volunteers, male and female, young and old, experienced and inexperienced, all began to work together to unpack and assemble 50 sets of rods and reels, then equip each set with a hook, weight and bobber.
By 8:30 a.m., 50 children, some from as far away as San Antonio and Bridgeport, would pair up with a “fishing coach” and try their luck at catching recently stocked rainbow trout from the picturesque little pond there on the park grounds.
Behind this effort was the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation. According to the nonprofit’s executive director, bass fishing professional Jay Yelas, “The C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation enriches the lives of children with special needs, supports their families, and strengthens communities through the sport of fishing. We empower families and communities to celebrate children with special needs, making these children feel valued and loved so they can overcome limitations and be successful.”
The two men on the ground seeing to it that the foundation’s mission was carried out in Temple this day were local businessman Alan Jones, the lead volunteer coordinator, of Belton-based drilling equipment manufacturer Belltec, and Jim Behnken, the Foundation’s Western Program Director.
As the children, most between the ages of 6 and 18, arrived with a parent or guardian, each was greeted warmly, provided with an event T-shirt, given a rod, reel, can of corn and a stocked tackle box and was paired up with a fishing coach.
According to Behnken, “As a general rule we ask that the children be between the ages of 6 and 18. However, we leave it to the discretion of our local area event coordinators if they want to adjust that range. We have had numerous events over the years with adults with special needs.”
My fishing buddy for the morning was 6-year-old Julian Necuze of Copperas Cove. Julian is a student at Martin Walker Elementary School in Copperas Cove and was accompanied to the event by his father, a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood who found out about the event via Facebook.
Julian had never been to a C.A.S.T. event before.
Each child was challenged with hooking and landing five rainbow trout. The caught trout were kept in zippered plastic bags and were then walked to a cleaning station where the fish were made ready for consumption and placed on ice until the event’s conclusion.
Julian was one of the first to arrive and was handsomely rewarded for his punctuality by catching the first five-fish limit of the morning.
Using yellow, whole-kernel corn as bait, we suspended a single kernel of corn on a small, #10 hook about three feet below a sensitive balsawood slip-float with a single, 1/8-ounce lead split-shot located between the float and the hook. We worked together to use a 6-foot spinning rod to cast the rig out where the fish were lurking near the pond’s aerator.
The trout were so ready to feed that patience was not really all that necessary. Julian quickly got the hang of reeling the trout in, and after having what would have been his fourth fish wiggle off the hook and escape back into the pond, he also quickly got the hang of moving away from the pond’s edge once a fish was landed.
In under 30 minutes Julian reached his five-trout limit and proudly carried his bag full of fish to the cleaning station manned by yet more volunteers.
As the kids’ 2½ hours of fishing time came to a close, still more volunteers had a lunch meal consisting of burgers, hot dogs, chips, condiments and cold water prepared for everyone on site.
Following lunch was the closing awards ceremony where each child received a plaque with his or her photo on it commemorating the day. Representative Hugh Shine of the Texas House was not only on hand for the ceremony but spent the entire morning with his own fishing buddy catching trout.
I asked Behnken about the path that led him to helping kids and about how others can become involved.
Behnken said, “In 2001, I was a volunteer at an event in Fort Worth, Texas. The following year, my wife attended the event with me as a volunteer. On the drive home from Fort Worth to San Antonio we talked about it and decided we would start our own event for children with special needs in San Antonio. Since 2003, I have coordinated an event for 80 children at Calaveras Lake in San Antonio. The foundation board members reached out to me in January, 2015, to come on board and be a full-time employee.”
Behnken continued, “The first advice I give someone interested in coordinating an event for the children of their community is to talk to two to four of their family members or friends to gauge interest. I try to encourage all events to form a committee to make sure that one person does not have to support the entire load of the event. The strongest events are those with several people involved with big hearts for doing something special for children of their area.”
When asked about individuals or businesses willing to aid the foundation’s efforts, Behnken had this to say: “In 2020 we will have 24 events in the state of Texas alone. For an event sponsor to be included on the back of all of the shirts for the kids and the volunteers, we ask for a minimum of a $250 donation.
“This helps the foundation cover the cost of all of the rods, fishing reels, tackle boxes, awards and clothing that we gift all of the children at the end of each day.”
To research or register for upcoming events, or to offer assistance to the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation, go to www.castforkids.org.