Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Making a Special Memory

It’s doubtful anyone had a better day on Southwest Florida’s waters this summer than a certain group of excited foster children and their adult companions. For them, the excursion was an infusion of joy into lives that have seen more than their fair share of difficulties. 

Departing from Caxambas Pass Marina on a recent Saturday morning were two boats bearing the first installment of the Fairy Tales Fishing Team. The annual charitable effort is dedicated to providing older foster children with an experience that might not be part of their lives. 

“The idea is to get them offshore to catch as many fish as they can,” said Josh Ferris, a Marco Island police officer who co-founded the team, along with another foster-children focused charitable effort, Fairy Tales for Fosters—which provides trips to Disney World and other adventures each year. 

Both are an outgrowth of the Fort Myers-based nonprofit Sterling Center. The organization offers in-home, family support and mental health services in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties for families with children ages 2 to 18. 

When the boats returned about four hours and twenty miles later, they did so laden with fish and the seven beaming youths, ages 12 through 17, who caught them. Each child is a client of the Sterling Center, which is dedicated to providing foster children with trips to Disney World and other adventures. 

“It went great,” said 13-year-old Caleb Early of Cape Coral, who enthusiastically recounted catching eight fish, including four on a line adorned with multiple hooks. “I had lots of fun. It felt really special. It made me feel joyful and happy inside.”

Sterling Center staff and volunteers, like Ferris, accompanied the youths on the fishing trip. Marco Island residents Paul Doppelt and Scott DeHooghe volunteered their boats and their time as captains for the outing. 

“I’m always eager to lend a hand and to share a good time with kids,” said DeHooghe, who along with Doppelt is a member of the Naples-based nonprofit, Paradise Charities. “To see a smile on their face; sometimes it’s because they caught a fish, sometimes it’s because we let them drive the boat, sometimes it’s because we see a dolphin. The day brings a lot of pleasure to us, so it’s easy to say yes.”

After the anglers returned to Marco, they were treated to swimming at the pool of an island resident before everyone headed to 2Shea’s Salty Dog in the Marco Walk Plaza. The restaurant prepared and served up their catch, giving the children the chance to enjoy the tasty end result of their efforts.

Despite a bout of seasickness, M.J. Wilkes of North Fort Myers rebounded to outdo Caleb by catching nine fish, including five on a multi-hook line. “It was fun,” remarked the friendly 14-year-old. “I made new friends and all kinds of stuff.” 

Jamie Sterling the Sterling Center’s Founder and Clinical Director declared the Fairy Tales Fishing Team’s debut to be a bang-up success and a much-needed treat for older foster children, a segment that often doesn’t receive the same amount of attention as younger children.

“That was the goal of this trip, to sort of honor some of the older children and to also give them an experience fishing,” explained Sterling. “Typically, a child will have a dad who takes them fishing. These children don’t have that so we’re trying to connect with the things that are lacking in their lives because of their circumstances. Something as simple to us as a day fishing is a dream for them.”

Several uniformed Marco police officers took the time to visit with the children on the dock before the trip began. Matt Gallup was one of them. 

“It does warm your heart,” he said. “Every child here is a gift from God and we appreciate them. We’re absolutely honored that we get to spend time with them. Our time on this planet is limited and we are just blessed by these children and we love them to death.”

Sterling said donations and volunteers are needed and much appreciated for the Sterling Center and its affiliated programs. For more information or to donate, visit thesterlingcenter.org or call 239-273-0270, or you can contact Josh Ferris at 321-544-5735 or josh.ferris@thesterlingcenter.org.

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