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Making a Difference: Kids fishing for (and catching) success

The Florida Fishing Academy is not only teaching kids about the thrill of the catch, it's helping them cope with peer pressure and stay on the right track. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

 By Mark Potter, NBC News


RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — On a morning fishing trip to a reef near the South Florida coast, 13-year-old Ray Moody was having the time of his life as he reeled in an exotic-looking species.

"Hey, it's a parrotfish," he yelled. "It's blue, it's a slippery blue one."

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Anthony Del Valle, 16, gets a turn at the helm of Rich Brochu's fishing boat.

Standing near him along the boat rail was 16-year-old Anthony Del Valle, who had also hooked one. Captain Rich Brochu offered encouragement and a quick angling lesson: "It looks like you may have something there. Yep, keep that rod tip up."

The weekend trip was part of an after-school fishing program that Brochu, a former police officer and construction company owner, started at his daughter's school in Boynton Beach six years ago to help kids from low-income areas experience the excitement of fishing. Since Brochu opened the Florida Fishing Academy, more than 4,000 students, ages 8 to 18, have signed on to learn the thrill of the catch.

"It's almost like playing a sport. You don't know what's on the other side; there's a kind of mystery to it," Brochu said. "If they catch a fish that's like 3 inches, it's the biggest smile. They love it."

Along with ocean conservation, catch-and-release fishing techniques, boating safety and first aid, Brochu also teaches the kids how to avoid peer pressure, the dangers of drug abuse and the advantages of keeping busy and off the street corners.

"All the kids benefit from activities like this. You know, it gives them something to look forward to," he said. "Obviously, we want to give them a choice in life and hopefully do something better with their life."

In a high school classroom recently, Brochu and Bob Cawood, another fishing captain who helps teach the program, planned to teach knot-tying, But first, they took a few moments to talk about the dangers of smoking.

"Cigarettes can cause mouth cancer. If you think that's true, raise your hands," they asked. Most hands went up. A short time later, the two men began teaching how to tie a clinch knot and made a game of it by insisting the students tie them behind their backs. The room erupted in noise and laughter as the students tried to see who could do it fastest.

Brad Houston/NBC News

Youngsters get a taste of the sea aboard Ray Brochu's fishing boat.

Excitement also broke out at gymnasium in Riviera Beach when elementary school students learned how to cast toward plastic fish scattered along the floor, and during foot races for which the children had to first put on life jackets correctly before running to the other side of the room.

A boating reward

For students in the program who stay in class, keep out of trouble and do some volunteer work, there is a special reward most of them would never have a chance to experience otherwise. At a dock in Riviera Beach is a colorfully painted 38-foot fishing boat that students can go out on to fish with Brochu and Cawood.

"Some of these kids have never been on a boat, never been on the beach. That's one of the goals, to get them out here," Brochu said.

Derrick Campbell, an instructor at Village Academy in Delray Beach, is convinced the fishing program and the promise of boating trips work to inspire good behavior.

"They're more disciplined. They don't act up," he said. "They know that there's something at the end of the rainbow."

Vickie Verzi, a single mother, wholeheartedly agrees. She believes the fishing program has been "the salvation" of her teenage son, Donnie, by keeping him engaged and away from troublemakers.

"It taught him how to fish," she said. "It gave him an interest in something that was good for him, and it gave him a direction in life."

Donnie now volunteers on the boat and is known among his friends as an accomplished angler.

Anthony Del Valle's mom, Tania Serrano, is also a fan of the program. "It's a new passion, and it keeps him busy," she said.

A shark-fishing trip is a particular source of pride for Anthony, and his mom couldn't be happier.

"A lot of people are like, 'wow, shark fishing?' and I'd rather have him out shark fishing than be hanging out with the sharks on the street."

For Anthony, the fishing boat not only gives him something to do; it also brings him a sense of inner peace.

"It gives me a second chance to do something I like and stay out of trouble," he said while cranking his fishing reel. "It just puts me in my own world."

Sharing the experience

The nonprofit Florida Fishing Academy program is paid for by donations, grants and fundraisers. Among the supporters is famed marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey, whose foundation wrote large checks to support the school and also supplied the colorful vinyl wrap that covers the boat hull.

"What a win, win, win situation," said Steve Stock, president of Guy Harvey Inc. "What a great sport this is, but way beyond that, if we can turn some of these kids' lives around, pretty good."

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Janel Scholine and Nick Corzo, in the background, cast their lures.

During the recent weekend trip, 16-year-old Janel Scholine reeled in several fish and said she was thrilled to learn a new skill.

"I love it. It's awesome. I didn't know anything about fishing, and now I do," she said, beaming. In fact, Janel learned so much that she is now a volunteer instructor teaching as many as 50 children at a time an academy program called Angling For A Healthy Future.

Layne Reyka, also 16, says fishing with captains Brochu and Cawood is a lot of fun and matches his personality: "I'm very competitive, so it's definitely the pursuit and the hunt, whether it be a big fish or a small fish — preferably a big fish!"

For Brochu, the size and the success of the program are a surprise. His plan had been to work just with the kids at his daughter's school. Since then, he said, the Florida Fishing Academy has taught in 46 Palm Beach County schools.

"I set out for one goal, and that was to save one kid," he said. "Now it's one child at a time, and we've saved a lot."

The reward, he said, is in hearing from parents how well their kids are doing and in watching kids fully engaged in a sport he and Cawood love.

"Bob and I are both on their level. We just enjoy it. It's a great time sharing the experience with them. We're living the dream." he said. "Making a difference is more important to us than making money."

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