I first met Cheng in March of 2010 at an internship fair at Gustavus College in St. Peter. I was recruiting summer volunteers to spend time at our centers learning about Lifeworks and people with disabilities. Cheng approached me and said that he was interested and when I asked him what his interests and hobbies were he responded quickly and emphatically, “Fishing.”
It stopped me for a moment, I hadn’t ever thought about starting a fishing program. It’s hard to talk to Cheng about fishing without getting enthused yourself so I bought the idea and brought it back to the Eagan center to sell.
Cheng is about to begin his senior year at Gustavus. He is studying Neuroscience and would like to one day be a psychiatrist. I asked Cheng why he wanted this volunteer opportunity and he said, “I love fishing and I have always wanted to share my passion with others. I have especially wanted to teach people with disabilities how to fish because I worry that this group of people might not get a chance to try it.”
Our first step in the process was to get fishing licenses for all 30 of the interested members; fortunately we had a few months before school was out for Cheng in order to accomplish this task. Cheng gave us a list of basic equipment needed and between the generosity of our staff and a new founded partnership with another non profit, Fishing for Life, we gathered enough recycled rods, reels, line, hooks, and bobbers to begin.
In early June Cheng came to the Eagan center to talk about fishing, equipment, meet the potential fishermen, and share enthusiasm for his passion. Finally June 11, a group of five hopeful fishermen traveled to Rogers Lake in Mendota Heights and the real fun began. The total catch of the day was 25 with Joe bringing in the most, seven sunfish and one large mouth bass. The enthusiasm that Cheng shared with me back in March was now all over the faces of the novice fishermen. The thrill of the line tugging your hand and winding the reel, hoping the fish will stay attached long enough for you to witness your success is how fish stories are made.
Every Friday there are at least five to eight people fishing with Cheng and our staff. They have explored many of the lakes in Dakota County. The smiles and fish tales multiply and grow enthusiastically each week. I asked several of the fishermen to talk about their adventure and several told me they had never fished before and they loved it. “Cheng is awesome,” Peter said, “We need to hook him into staying with us forever.” Peter went onto to say, “I caught a fish, I don’t know what kind it was and I don’t care, I loved going and I am going to go again July 30th.” “Just to be out there at the lake,” said Beth, “Just to be with Cheng.” “I never caught a fish before,” added Elaine, “And Cheng really knows his fish.”
John Buchan once said, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” How true, a simple pole, red and white bobber, a worm and some quiet time on a pier with a friend can bring hope and a smile to many.
Now after seven weeks of fishing I asked Cheng what he has learned from us and he said, “This is my first time to be exposed to so many people with similar disabilities. I have learned that though some of them lack the ability to communicate effectively, they are still able to comprehend. The approach I take for each person varies a little and if I know which one works best, I can learn to meet their needs more. This has taught me how to be more patient with people.”
I also asked what his favorite memory is so far and his response was quick, “I would have to say all of the smiles on the client’s faces when they catch a fish. Those are the kind of smiles where you know they are really having a good time.”
“Would you do this again?” I asked and Cheng responded, “Definitely!”
Thank you Cheng for bringing your passion to us, this has been a summer we will never forget.