For many South Carolinians, fishing is a relaxing pastime that tantalizes the eyes, ears and nose. From the gentle glide of a boat skimming across the water to the flick of a baited line under the water’s surface, the sights of fishing are often quietly spectacular.
Fishing is a particularly joyful experience for Dorothy Barksdale, but this 62-year-old Laurens native isn’t the everyday sportswoman. Dorothy has been legally blind since her mid-20s. The fact that she can enjoy the simple pleasure of an afternoon of fishing is a gift made possible by a joint effort between regional Lions Clubs in Columbia, Greenwood, Easley, Clemson and Santee, and the local chapters of the Federation Center of the Blind, an affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina.
Together, the groups plan, organize and execute annual fishing outings for blind adults ages 18 and older, some of whom live with other handicapping conditions in addition to visual impairment. This year, fishing trips were planned in Pickens County and Greenwood and included blind individuals from the Columbia, Anderson, Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston, Summerville, Upper Dorchester and North Augusta areas.
David Houck, executive director of The Federation Center of the Blind, shared the long history behind the beloved program which has helped hundreds of legally blind South Carolinians experience the sport of fishing on the water in both safety and comfort. In 2014, the groups whisked 43 anglers off for two-day weekends of fishing with a pack of local Lions Club volunteers, who assisted with companionship, meal preparation, baiting hooks, moral support and much more.
“This program began about 20 years ago with the aim to provide recreational opportunities for the blind,” says David. “Since then it’s grown from the Midlands into the Lowcountry and the Upstate and beyond.” Participants for each trip, who are chosen through an application process, have several fishing holes from which to choose.
“The Santee Lions Club trip is an overnight excursion to Lake Marion with dinner and entertainment the night before the fishing begins. Then, the next day, the participants and Lions members all enjoy a day of fishing on Lake Marion together complete with a lunch which is boated out to everyone,” David continues. Each participant who fishes is paired with one or more helpers and can choose where he or she would most enjoy fishing: from the pier or out on the lake in a pontoon boat.
Other participants opt to venture north and head Upstate from Columbia to the mountainous Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center, a unique camp that’s operated by blind individuals for the blind. Open year-round for the blind and their immediate family members, the Pickens County camp offers special programming including fishing as well as full-week and weekend mountain vacation getaways. Each year the Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center serves more than 1,000 individuals.
No matter the location, the group’s fishing experiences are rounded out with plenty of joyful, warm memories. From campfire cookouts to raucous rounds of bingo to sizzling pancake breakfasts, everyone on the trip knows they’re in for quite a good time. In fact, the fishing experiences have become so popular, according to David, that an application process is now in place to select recipients, with first priority going to those who have never been on one of the group’s fishing trips. The May 2014 fishing trip to Lake Marion included 28 participants and, two weeks later, a second trip to Rocky Bottom Retreat hosted 15 blind individuals.
Like any fishing weekend, these trips aren’t solely about fun and fellowship; these jaunts are bona fide, blind-only competitive fishing tournaments with a few lucky participants earning fishing glory. Each expedition names official winners for catching the largest fish and the most fish — plus an off-the-record honor for reeling in the tiniest catch. The two first-place tournament winners from each South Carolina tournament go on to participate in a larger all-blind fishing tournament held in the fall in Outer Banks, N.C.
The longstanding partnership is made possible each year thanks to wide support among regional Lions Club chapters. The Lions, one of the nation’s largest service club organizations, have a long history of helping the visually impaired. In 1925, Helen Keller charged the group to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” It was a challenge they readily accepted which remains core to their mission of service today.
“We are so appreciative of the work of the Lions Clubs and have been for a number of years,” shares David. “Their support makes this important experience possible. Our participants truly enjoy fishing, and many want to sign up year after year. Unfortunately, we always seem to have more applicants than we can serve in any given year.”
One of those happy fishermen is Dorothy, who has been on five fishing trips in South Carolina. Dorothy, who was born with cataracts and glaucoma, experienced worsening sight throughout her youth and eventually completely lost her ability to see by the age of 22. It was the total darkness, she says, that made her especially fearful of being on or around water throughout her life.
Dorothy laughed when recalling her first trip to Lake Marion about five years ago. “I was so nervous, and then when I got down to the dock where the boat was, I had to step way down to get into the boat,” she recalls. “I couldn’t get myself down to the boat! It took two men helping me, one on either side, and finally I had to just sit down on the dock and slide in. With their help, I did it. I finally got myself into that boat.”
Since the thought of being on a boat caused such fear, Dorothy was courageous to accept the invitation when she was selected for a trip. On that trip Dorothy landed her first — and last — fish, so far. “It was so exciting to catch that first fish,” she says. “But the last four times I’ve gone, nothing! Those fish just come along and eat my worm, but I still have so much fun.”
Dorothy is living proof that the simple act of going fishing can have lifelong downstream effects for blind individuals. “It’s an unbelievable experience that many people with blindness would otherwise never have,” says Dorothy. “Most individuals who are blind end up fearing water and never experience the feeling of being in a boat on the water. With the support of the Lions and an experience like this, they have a way to safely cope with those fears and hopefully even overcome them.”
She credits the five fishing experiences she’s had in helping her curb her longtime fear of being on the water and for opening her life to new opportunities. “My family had always wanted to go on a cruise together but I was just too nervous about it,” she says. “Once I got around the water on Lake Marion and got used to it, I was finally ready to go on a cruise. In fact, I actually wanted to.”
A few years after she’d mustered the courage for her inaugural ocean-going voyage, her plans were sidelined by a startling change of health. She learned she had breast cancer in 2012 and had to seek a grueling series of treatments. “Once I was far enough along in my treatment and felt I was going to be okay, I had one question for the doctor, ‘Can I still go on that cruise?’” she says.
Just a few months later, in January 2013, Dorothy got the all clear and her sea-faring wish finally came true as she boarded a cruise ship for a five-day island excursion. “By the time the cruise was over,” she laughs, “I did not even want to get off the ship! I just loved it.”
“It’s stories like Dorothy’s and many others that keep this vital recreational opportunity on the event calendar each year,” says David. Participants are already lining up for the opportunity to enjoy a day of fishing with the Lions again in 2015.
Among those who can already hear the hum of the boat engine and zip of casting the fishing line is Dorothy Barksdale. Her burning hope? Maybe 2015 will finally be the year she’s been waiting for — the year she finally catches “The Big One.” If not, she’ll happily settle for a little one, too. In her eyes, a fish is still a fish.
To learn more about the Lions-National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina fishing trips and other life enrichment opportunities for blind individuals and their families, visit www.nfbsc.net.