Olivia Hilt is 12, lives in Charlotte’s Belmont community and has an ugly history with fishing.
“I once tried years ago,” she recalls, “and accidentally hooked a friend in the lip. She had to go to the emergency room.”
So it was with a great reluctance that Olivia recently accepted a fishing pole during a session of the Great Outdoors University of Greater Charlotte, a year-round program that introduces inner city kids to the wilderness. Olivia was part of a group with the Boys & Girls Club that went fishing at McDowell Nature Preserve on Lake Wylie.
She summed up her feelings in three words: “Fish are stupid.”
University manager Mary Bures says Olivia’s initial reaction is common among children who show up for completely foreign activities like fishing, hiking and canoeing. They almost always change their attitude by the end of the sessions. More than 10,000 have participated since the program kicked off 2 1/2 years ago, and many are from low-income families, while others live in group homes.
Still others are homeless and living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope.
“We have kids who don’t want to be here, but they come around and you start to see them get excited about things like a goose floating on a pond, or blowing the seeds off a dandelion,” Bures said.
“I once had a 14-year-old boy tell me that it was the greatest day of his life and that made me a little sad. I mean, I was happy that he enjoyed it, but sad that he hadn’t been able to have the opportunity until he was 14. That’s a long time to miss out.”
Great Outdoors University of Greater Charlotte was launched in late 2012 by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation. Activities such as day trips began in June 2013, including stream exploration and hiking. In the past two years, it has more than doubled the number of summer day trips to 70. More will be added in years to come.
Charlotte’s program has an annual budget of over $150,000 and is funded through grants from entities like the Arts & Science Council, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Bank of America. The program received a major grant recently when the Women’s Impact Fund, a collective-giving organization of 400 female leaders, announced it was giving $71,000 spread out over the next two years. The grant was part of $382,000 the group gave out to address critical community needs.
Bures said the university is not just for children and offers Family Fun Days in the outdoors for the general public.
“We’re finding a fair share of parents don’t know where to begin when taking their kids outdoors,” Bures says. “I had one father from New York whose son wanted to go fishing, and the father had never fished. We taught him and his son how to fish together.”
Surprisingly, they may actually run into 12-year-old Olivia at the lake. Just as Bures predicted, she began to warm to fishing later in the day , as she sat on a dock alongside fellow Boys & Girls Club members Mecca Glover, 13, and Kaela Ferguson, 14.
All three refused to touch the worms used to bait their hooks. But somewhere amid the quiet and cool breezes off the lake, Kaela admitted she didn’t want to leave. Then came the big moment when Olivia, of all people, caught a fish, though a pitiful fish it was. She refused to touch it, but was clearly thrilled.
Fishing guide Tim Lindstedt, who had to take it off the hook, estimated the fish might be a half a pound. But it was clear the size would be much bigger when Olivia recounted her fish story at home later that night.
“That’s the way it is with fish stories,” Bures sais. “The fish gets bigger every time they tell it.”
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