Let’s do a visualization exercise together. It requires you to set aside your biases and suspend disbelief.
Close your eyes.
Take a deep breath.
Imagine a state-run program. One that touches approximately 7,000 people every year. A program that gets kids and their families outdoors, exposes them to nature, and teaches them about history, biology and conservation. A program that intentionally and effectively serves people of all social, racial and economic backgrounds.
Take another deep breath. Release it slowly. Now imagine that this program doesn’t require a single dollar from the state’s general fund.
Open your eyes.
Behold: the Connecticut Aquatic Resources Education Program (CARE).
CARE was founded in 1986 by George Babey, an employee of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). A year earlier, DEEP was given the legislative mandate to create a “fishing education and urban angler program.” George decided to build CARE around a model that utilized DEEP’s limited resources to “train the trainer.” The idea was simple, but remarkably effective and efficient: recruit a small army of volunteers passionate about both the outdoors and helping others. Then train these volunteers how to share their passion with others.
If you ask me, Babey was a genius. If there is one thing more magical than catching your first fish, it’s helping someone else catch theirs. Once you’ve see that look of joy and awe on a child’s face, you are, pardon the pun, “hooked.”
CARE, by any measure, is a huge success. The program has trained and certified over 750 instructors (I became number 758) and taught more than 212,000 kids and their families. The program offers classes of varying difficulty, ranging from a basic fishing course to specialty classes on ice fishing and fly fishing. CARE also provides summer fishing programs and a number of annual special events. For example, May 11 this year is Free Family Fishing Day, where you and your family can participate in a variety of activities, including: fishing; fishing games; getting lessons on fly casting or fly tying; helping to stock trout; taking a nature hike; or enjoying a fish fry.
And no state tax dollars are used to fund the program. CARE is funded entirely by grants from the Federal Sport Restoration Program (75 percent) and volunteer time (25 percent). The volunteer time is critical: it is treated as in-kind services and allows the state to qualify for the grants without being required to provide matching funds.
I first learned about CARE several years ago when I was leafing through the Connecticut Angler’s Guide (an annual DEEP publication of fishing regulations and other information). I came across an ad entitled Free family fishing lessons! The ad contained four pictures of kids beaming as they posed with fish and invited readers to “Join Our Team. Share Your Passion.” There was a number to call to sign up for instructor training courses.
“Hmm,” I thought, “what a great way to give back to the community.” Rather than call the number, I copied the ad, put the copy in my to-do file and went fishing. It took me three years to find that ad and to complete the training to become a certified instructor.
A few weeks ago, I went back to school, spending a Saturday at the CARE headquarters in Killington. I joined 10 other volunteers in a class taught by CARE coordinators Tom Bourette and Justin Wiggins. Tom and Justin are perfectly suited to lead the program. They are knowledgeable, easy-going and dedicated. Minutes into the class, it became apparent why CARE is so successful. These guys are truly dedicated to connecting kids and their families with the outdoors.
We covered a number of topics, ranging from program history, to species identification, to proper appearance (according to the Instructor Policy and Procedures Manual, “The Instructor will be clean and neat.”)
We focused, however, on how to teach the curriculum for the Introduction To Fishing course. This course is the foundation of CARE. Participants get 2-3 hours of classroom instruction where they learn things like how to cast, basic knot tying and the best baits to use. Then, they go fishing. All required gear is provided by CARE, and the fishing is supervised by certified instructors.
As it turns out, I completed the certification in a slightly unusual manner. I helped teach an Introduction To Fishing course before I took the certification class. This is another testament to CARE’s success. Tom and Justin are appreciative of, and sensitive to, constraints on a volunteer’s time. The certification class is taught only twice a year: in February and June. I first talked to Justin in March of last year and knew that I had a conflict with the June date. I didn’t want to wait almost year to get involved. There was no hesitation when I asked Justin if I could help before taking the class.
“Absolutely,” he said.
And so, after they completed a background check, they let me help teach an Introduction To Fishing course in Suffield. Afterwards, I knew, if you will pardon a second pun, that the CARE program had me “hook, line and sinker.”
There was a young lady in my class who had special needs. She had a hard time casting and could stand for only short periods of time. She was also left handed, and all we had were right handed reels. To retrieve line, she had to turn the rod over and crank backwards.
But she was full of grit and determination. No matter how many times her cast went awry, or how many times she got snagged on the bottom, she never gave up. I was awed by how confidently and unabashedly she asked for, and accepted, guidance.
I had her set up in an area that looked fishy. I gradually realized it wasn’t particularly so. As near as I could tell, after almost an hour, she hadn’t gotten any bites. “Do you want to try a different spot,” I asked. “They look like they’re having some luck over on the dock.”
“No,” she said with piercing eyes and uncanny certainty. “I will catch one here. Will you cast my line for me?”
So, we worked the spot for a while longer. Sometimes she would try to cast on her own and sometimes she’d ask for my help. I was about to suggest again that we move when the tip of her rod bent down violently. She looked at me with a mixture of apprehension and excitement.
“You got one,” I said, possibly a little too loud and a little too anxiously. Then, more calmly: “Point the end of your rod towards the sky and reel as fast you can.”
I didn’t need to say it twice. She reeled fast. Very fast. In seconds, she had a yellow perch dangling just inches from the end of her rod.
I will never forget the smile on her face. It was so big and so genuine, I thought my heart would burst.
“Mom! Dad! I did it! I caught a fish!”
I have heard kids exclaim this before (in fact, many times that day), but never with the same conviction. Maybe it was just my imagination, but her sense of accomplishment seemed to be much deeper and richer. That perch seemed to connect with her in a special way, and I was very grateful to be a part of it.
All made possible by a state program run without the use of taxpayer dollars.
Author’s Note: For more information about the CARE program, go to ct.gov/deep/care. Or, just keep on the lookout for updates from me. I hope to help teach an Introduction To Fishing class in Granby later this year. I will need both participants and volunteers.
Photos by Mark Fiorentino