The Catch A Special Thrill Foundation made its return to Lake Weatherford Marina after nearly one year Saturday morning to great fanfare.
The foundation’s Lake Weatherford event, “designed to provide children with disabilities, ages 5–17 the opportunity to enjoy a quality outdoor recreational experience through the sport of fishing,” drew a large crowd of young fishermen as well as those wanting to help out.
In 2018 the Lake Weatherford event, assisted by more than 60 volunteers, served up a day of fun in the sun for 34 local special-needs children.
Those numbers jumped to more than 50 kids and boat captains apiece Saturday, with a total turnout of between 300-400 people including participants, family members and volunteers, growth Weatherford Event Coordinator Landon Martin said was beyond exceptional.
“Last year was the inaugural event,” Martin said.
“We were told that the biggest problem we’d have would be finding kids. So we ended up last year with 34 kids. We had a good turnout of boat captains. This year, we actually registered 51 kids and had seven on a wait list. As far as boat captains go, we had 53 confirmed boat captain registrations, and I [was] receiving calls basically everyday from people asking if they could bring boats out. The turnout this year has been phenomenal. This event has grown so much. It’s unbelievable how fast it has taken off.”
While the event’s roots are in Weatherford, its reach extended far beyond its host city, Martin said.
“We’ve got kids from Euless, Waco, Cleburne, Fort Worth and Brock,” Martin said.
“We call this the Lake Weatherford event, but this is far from being just a Weatherford event. This has grown into a lot of North Texas. Our hopes are that some of the boat captains and other people volunteering will take what they learn back to their own towns and host events at their local lakes so we can start serving these kids in areas other than just Weatherford.
“We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg here alone.”
C.A.S.T. For Kids Executive Director Jay Yelas, a professional fisherman himself, said seeing growth at a local level like that in Weatherford is always a heartwarming development.
“It brings great joy to me and everybody on our staff that works so hard to help this foundation be successful to see new events [growing],” Yelas said.
“We’ve got four or five new events in Texas this year. So that’s awesome. We’ve about doubled the number of events nationwide since 2015. But there’s unlimited potential. We feel like we’re in the bottom of the first inning in our growth.
“It takes people like Landon in the local communities to step up and make it a reality. We’re just a staff of five, and we all run our own C.A.S.T. events. To grow, we need people with big hearts for the children.”
Lake Weatherford’s 2019 event faced no shortage of such individuals.
The young fishermen in attendance enjoyed several hours out on the water guided by experienced boat captains, many of who regularly compete in tournaments.
After returning ashore with their catch of the day in hand, participants enjoyed a catered meal of hamburgers and hot dogs served up by members of Texas Farm Bureau Insurance, the event’s presenting sponsor (which is catering all C.A.S.T. events in Texas this year).
Kids in attendance also enjoyed face paintings, a bounce house, sand volleyball and got to take home their own Rocket Fishing Rods provided by Goliath Games.
Texas Farm Bureau Insurance Agency Manager Sonny Black said the company, which has worked with the C.A.S.T. Foundation in the past, desired to become more involved in the group’s efforts.
“Some of our other Farm Bureau folks across the state have been involved in C.A.S.T. For Kids for a few years, and then brought it to a corporate level and said, ‘This is an organization we’ve all been a part of. We really think we need to take a look at this and get everyone involved with the different events across the state,”’ Black said.
“We were fortunate enough this year to be a part of the Weatherford event. I think it’s important to come together as communities.”
Also in attendance were roughly 15 representatives of DPR Construction and Facebook, which partnered to serve as C.A.S.T.’s regional sponsor.
DPR Construction Project Executive Andy Kirby said the company appreciated C.A.S.T.’s goals and wanted to get involved.
“We really wanted to help out as much as we could, Kirby said.
“It’s really cool to see the kids get so excited about going fishing and seeing the joy on their faces. This is a special day.”
Martin said the connections made at C.A.S.T. events like Lake Weatherford’s opens the door for holding additional events in the future both near and far.
“The networking you can do at an event like this for these kids is unbelievable,” Martin said.
“We’ve talked about next year possibly having a morning event and afternoon event since we have all the boat captains here and being able to double the number of kids we take care of.”
Martin said while opportunities such as enjoying a boat ride and going fishing are sometimes taken for granted in the clamor of everyday life, those same experiences are often unavailable to special-needs children.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times special-needs kids are not able to be involved with a lot of the things that [others] are fortunate enough to do every day,” Martin said.
“What our hope is by hosting an event like this is to be able to get these special-needs kids and their families out of the house and enjoy nature, enjoy an opportunity to fish, get some sunshine and ride in a boat. So many kids have never even been in a boat before. We’ve had multiple kids that have never held a rod and reel. So we pair them up with experienced fishermen. The vast majority of our fishermen are tournament fishermen. These are guys who fish every single chance they get, and they know how much they love it. And they want to give back and [help the kids] experience the same thing they do without any restrictions or limitations. It doesn’t matter to us if you’re in a wheelchair, if you’re blind. We accept all disabilities in this event. And our people are prepared to work with these kids.”
Even if they last for only a single day, events like those of the C.A.S.T. Foundation can create an impact which lasts a lifetime, Martin added.
“When you take an autistic kid and you expose them to events like this, the growth is unbelievable,” Martin said.
“They can go from being low-functioning on the autism scale into being high-functioning, just by being able to be included and participate in an event like this.
“They’re capable of doing anything that they want to do. That even falls back with the parents. Bring your kid and let them experience something, and we’re gonna help you see what more can come from your child. We had kids last year that were afraid to get on a boat. But by the end of the day, mom and dad were forcing them to get off the boat because the kids didn’t want to leave.”
Yelas echoed Martin’s thoughts, while adding that the impact events like C.A.S.T. have on children can come about quickly.
“I walked over from fishing with a little boy [Saturday] who came last year and got seasick out on the boat,” Yelas said.
“He’s an autistic young fella, about eight years old. This year, his mom brought him and she wanted her son to be introduced to fishing, but she doesn’t know how to do it. She said there’s very little for her special-needs son to do in the community. So she found out about C.A.S.T. For Kids, they came out last year and loved it, but he got seasick, so they came back this year and just fished off the shore. He caught his first fish of his life, and he ended up catching five or six.
“When he first showed up [Saturday], he was hiding behind his mom and was really shy. But by the end of the day, he was laughing and joking. It’s fun to really see them come out of their shell and gain confidence.
“That’s what happens when other people encourage you and love on you and make you feel like a valued member of your community. The kids just blossom, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
“It’s great for all these volunteers too. Everybody goes home at the end of the day feeling like it was time well spent.”
A big part of having that kind of impact on kids in attendance comes from treating them with equality and patience, Martin said.
“We call them fishermen,” Martin said.
“They’re not special-needs kids. They’re just fishermen today. And all they’re out here doing is being supported and loved on by a bunch of phenomenal people with huge hearts, and they’re getting an opportunity to get out, enjoy the day and have a fantastic time. And hopefully, with us providing the equipment that they get to keep and take home, they will have the opportunity and their families will continue to take them out.
“The fishermen get as much out of the event as the kids do.”
Sponsors for the 2019 Lake Weatherford event included Texas Farm Bureau Insurance, DPR Construction, Facebook, Double B Shooting, Polaris Services LLC, First National Bank Weatherford, Lake Weatherford Marina, Knighten Industries, Goliath, Shipwrecked Pub and Grille, Epic Baits, Ryan, Linnzi and Chloe Cohlmeyer, Tackle Depot, Freedom Powersports, GEO Dynamics, Wyre, Fun n Sun Boats and Tackle, Lightfoot Mechanical, Optimist Club Weatherford, EAI Midstream Services Division, Pediaplex, ,C.H.A.M.P.S. Weatherford High School, Blue Lizard Sunscreen, Juliebeans Ice Cream and The Baker Firm Fidelity National Title.