Fish outnumbered kids with disabilities at the Merwin Fish Hatchery when the day began, but as the special day of fishing went on, the balance started to shift.
At the 23rd annual Merwin Special Kids Day, more than 200 kids took home as many as five fish each, aided by volunteers from Pacific Power, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and many recreational fishing organizations and corporate vendors. For some kids, it was their first chance ever to catch a fish.
The yearly event is always marked by lots of excitement, laughter and notes of gentle encouragement. When a kid who rarely fishes hooks one, they can’t help but smile. The excitement doubles as they reel it in – usually with the assistance of a volunteer coach – as the flopping fish emerges from the water.
“It’s absolutely phenomenal to watch,” said Kevin Young, who manages the hatchery for Washington Fish & Wildlife. “Giving kids with disabilities access to fish in the hatchery ponds puts smiles on their faces and that is absolutely the reason we’re here.”
Pacific Power has sponsored the event with the Department of Fish and Wildlife for more than 23 years, a commitment interrupted only by the pandemic. The company provides volunteers and support for the event at the hatchery near its Merwin dam, which generates hydroelectric power for customers in the region. Pacific Power employees always love helping the kids have a good day.
“It’s tough to go fishing. The expense for kids, finding a river, the accessibility,” said Todd Dinehart, Pacific Power’s vice president of employee experience. “There is nothing better than seeing the joy and surprise when kids realize how big their fish are – we’re not talking little one-pounders, we’re talking nine to 12-inch catches. Some of these fish are as big as eight or nine pounds.”
The event brings together young patients, including those with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, cancer or other conditions, from Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Kids and other facilities. Along with their family members, kids are paired with volunteer fishing coaches who help them reel in and net trout that have been cultivated especially for the event. Kids can collect prizes for fish that can weigh up to nine pounds.
When kids arrive at the hatchery, they’re given t-shirts, fishing rods, tackle and other items. Then they’re sent with a volunteer coach to catch their limit of five fish, which are cleaned and put on ice while families enjoy a barbecue.
Pacific Power volunteers were joined by volunteers from District 1 Firefighters, Fish First, Southwest Washington Anglers, Swift Community Action Team, Vancouver Wildlife League and Klineline Kids Fishing Nonprofit. Vendors included Arctic Glacier, Bob’s Sporting Goods, Brad’s Killer Fishing Gear, Corwin Beverage, Edge Rods, Fisherman’s Marine & Outdoor, North Fork Lures and Wilbur-Ellis Nutrition.
“It’s so nice to have a family event where these kids and all their siblings, their parents and their care providers and others are coming out to enjoy this event at Merwin,” said Diana Knous, regional business manager for Pacific Power, who volunteered at the event. “The kids always have an amazing time.”
The occasion is a gift not only to the kids, creating a memory they’ll treasure, but for their families and for the volunteers, who are delighted to make the unforgettable day happen each year. Young, the hatchery manager, said he thinks volunteers get as much out of the event as any of the participants.
Seeing the joy of a kid with his first fish, he said, “is absolutely humbling.”