On a cold January night in the northern Twin Cities, with the windchill dipping temperatures to double digits below zero, a mix of inner-city and Bethlehem Baptist Church youth in Minneapolis got to experience — many for the first time — the joy of walking on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 frozen lakes.
Hosted by volunteers and staff members with Fishing for Life — a faith-based, nonprofit group — the children filed into an 8-by-24 fish house for an evening of ice fishing and dinner.
Once inside, Quentin Mingo of Minneapolis, 9, asked the inevitable question of any first-time hard-water angler: “What if I fall in?”
Tony Haberle of Burnsville, 35, program director and multiple-tour Army combat veteran reassured them. “Not on my watch,” he said.
Haberle explained safety rules and the finer points of the sport. Within minutes, every kid had a line in the water. They sat watching the spectrum of colors flashing along the dials of Vexilars situated beside each trough, eagerly awaiting their first fish.
Outside, rows of cheddar brats lined the grill, as camp director Vaughn Blackburn made plans to double-down on dinner servings for everyone.
The purpose for the evening’s outing was twofold: immerse youth in the sport while also scouting locations for Fishing for Life’s upcoming event, Holes 4 Heroes, a fundraiser to benefit veterans and military families.
Fishing for Life was formed in 2004 when Tom Goodrich of Minnetonka, 51, after serving 22 years in the Army, returned home to Minnesota and sought another way to serve.
“When I got out, I wondered, ‘How do you replace whole combat scenarios with anything fulfilling?’ ” he said. “I think that is where a lot of [post-traumatic stress disorder] comes from. Usually there is a void, but I had no missteps. I found a vast area of men needing leadership skills.”
Today, Fishing for Life maintains nine different ministries — ranging from focus areas such as inner-city or at-risk youth to military families to individual veterans.
“Our main focus is youth,” Haberle said. “We are an avenue to get them out of the urban environment and into the outdoors, something greater than themselves.
“We also hope to build strong mentors,” he said, “someone who can take that inner-city youth under his wing, kind of grow him — spiritually and in an outdoors sense, everything.” Mentors oversee one or more young people. They set up their young charges with fishing gear, pick them up and take them to various events, and remain in frequent contact. The idea is to be a regular presence.
Every year, the organization hosts 56 different events or tournaments throughout the state. In addition to scheduled events, a group of volunteer and staff members guide nearly 2,000 military family members, veterans or youth on private fishing trips.
“They create an environment not just for people who like to fish, but they bring veterans together,” said Jeanine Solberg, an Army veteran and outreach specialist with the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs. “Out on the lake, there are all ages, males and females, people from all over, some who like to fish and some who never have. It is a safe environment for them to network.
“Everyone is going through different conflicts with different great stories to share,” she said. “Fishing for Life does a good job of balancing that.”
Goodrich, the executive director, said the organization is supported by six to seven sources of revenue, which includes small and large donors, an annual banquet and golf tournament. It also receive grants and has sponsors.
“These guys are great stewards of the money that comes in,” said Mike Wolbrink, former Army Ranger and founder of Azule Staffing, an agency focused on finding jobs for veterans. Azule Staffing is one of the main sponsors at Fishing for Life’s banquet events. “They don’t spend money they don’t have to, and they get a lot of people to do great donations, because they have a way of reaching veterans’ hearts.”
All money from the upcoming Holes 4 Heroes events will go toward scholarships for youth to attend the group’s outdoors summer camp. Last year, the event raised $22,000 and benefited the General Colin L. Powell Leadership Academy.
Both Holes 4 Heroes events, which function as a tournament with more than $5,000 in prizes, take place Feb. 4 (Medicine Lake) and Feb. 11 (White Bear Lake) and are open to the public. They celebrate all components of the military and are free to both active-duty personnel and veterans and their families. The tournament also will be simulcast to Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing servicemen and women overseas to watch their family and friends in action.
Jack Hennessy is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” He is from St. Louis Park. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack.