IT WAS HARD not to notice the 8-year-old boy across the street who stormed in and out of his own house. He did it often enough that a neighbor, William Dunn, wondered what was going on in his life. So Dunn asked him.
“He told me that he didn’t have a father,” says Dunn, now 58, “and I realized there might be something I could do for him.”
That something was fishing, a passion Dunn’s father had shared with him. “Fishing always brought me peace and it taught me how to be patient. When you’re on the water, you can forget about your problems and just appreciate the moment.” Dunn, who has three children of his own, got permission from the boy’s mother to take him fishing.
One Saturday afternoon on the water led to another, and soon he was teaching other kids in their Lakeland, Florida, neighborhood how to rig a line, hold a pole, and reel in a big catch. That was 16 years ago.
Since then, Dunn has taken groups of kids out almost every weekend to fish. Most didn’t have father figures in their lives and had never fished before. Some were foster kids who had shuffled from one home to the next.
“They’d been through a lot, and they’d seen a lot, and their lives were difficult,” Dunn says. “But when they were fishing, all of that faded away. Out on the boat, they’d be laughing and smiling and making new friends. I knew I was on to something.”
Fishing is about “making memories,” says William Dunn, with two new anglers.
In the beginning, Dunn—“Big Will” to the kids—spent a good chunk of his paycheck from his job selling tires to rent charter boats for the kids. Then, in 2018, he started the nonprofit Take a Kid Fishing Inc. He and a small group of volunteers have introduced more than 2,500 kids—most without fathers around—to the calming peace found on the water and the exhilaration of nabbing a fish. One of those kids was Jayden Pryor, who struggled emotionally when his father died in a car accident in January 2020.
“I’M ABLE TO FORGET ABOUT THE PAST AND CONCENTRATE ON SOMETHING FUN.”
“He was really close to his dad,” says Jayden’s mother, Terra Pryor. And with two younger siblings, he “felt he needed to take over the man of the house role. He was trying to be strong for everyone and didn’t show his emotion. I was wondering what to do to help him, and then I learned about Take a Kid Fishing.”
Jayden, now 13, has become a devoted fisherman and credits Dunn with helping him mature, while also being sure to mention that he once caught a shark with Dunn’s help.
“I hope he knows I mean it when I say thank you,” he says.
Just as important as the fishing are the relationships Dunn forms with the kids.
“When Jayden was going through a rough patch … I let Will know that his grades were suffering and he had a little talk with him,” Terra says. Jayden came home and told her that Big Will had given him a sense of purpose. And, she adds, Jayden’s grades have improved.
Another regular angler, Bella Smith, says that Dunn emphasizes self-respect and mental toughness.
“I’m able to forget about the past when I’m fishing and concentrate on something fun and positive,” says Smith, 21, who is in a foster program for young adults while she takes automotive classes at a technical college. “Fishing is learning for life. I’ve learned that I deserve a better life than what I had. Whenever I feel down about something, I know it’s time to go fishing.”
Dunn’s own father passed away this past December. As a result, the fishing trips have taken on new meaning for him. “I have even more passion for it because now I’m fatherless too.” That’s why he’s always eager to watch the kids on the boat.
“There’s nothing like feeling that first tug on the line and seeing a kid light up with a smile,” Dunn says. “I feel lucky to witness that every weekend.”
THE WASHINGTON POST (JUNE 17, 2022), COPYRIGHT © 2022 BY THE WASHINGTON POST. ■