When they were growing up, Allie McGraw and her sisters used to go fishing with their grandparents not far from their home in Low Moor, Iowa.
But 14 years ago, Allie's sister, Amy Sater, then 17 years old, suffered severe complications while undergoing surgery and is now legally blind. She gets around in a motorized wheelchair.
Allie, four years younger than Amy, became interested in helping people with disabilities. So, this year she is launching an Eastern Iowa chapter of the outdoors organization called Fishing Has No Boundaries Inc.
Fishing, she said, offers people such as her sister an enjoyable, accessible recreational activity. The first event is June 7 at Rock Creek Marina near Camanche, Iowa. All participants must pre-register.
An occupational therapist
McGraw is 27 now, married and living in Davenport. She graduated from Central DeWitt High School in 2005 and volunteered at Camp Courageous, a facility near Monticello Iowa, for people with disabilities.
She attended St. Ambrose University in Davenport to study occupational therapy and is now employed at Rock Valley Physical Therapy in Moline as an occupational therapist.
Organized a new chapter
McGraw discovered the Fishing Has No Boundaries organization on the Internet. She researched it and then contacted its headquarters in Hayward, Wis.
"We get phone calls from all over the world," said Kathy Overman, the business manager of the organization. "There is such a need."
Overman suggested that McGraw attend an accessible fishing event in central Illinois last year to see how it works. McGraw has since formed a board of directors for the Eastern Iowa chapter, and it includes her sister Amy, her grandfather (as the fishing expert) and friends from the health care field.
“We look at the safety aspects of this fishing event and how to keep it fun,” McGraw explained.
Chapter organizers have done a lot of outreach work in the meantime. For example, there was a Fishing Has No Boundaries booth at the Outdoor Show hosted last month by the Quad-City Conservation Alliance at its QCCA Expo Center in Rock Island.
“A lot of people stopped by the booth,” McGraw said, and the Eastern Iowa volunteers handed out informational pamphlets and acquired contact information for people to help with the June event.
In November, the group hosted a fundraising trivia night. McGraw added that they also have received grants as well as support from area businesses.
Working mostly nights and weekends on the Eastern Iowa program, McGraw hopes to attract 30 participants for the first event. She aims to recruit about 50 volunteers as well as 15 boats — preferably the pontoon type to provide greater accessibility for those in wheelchairs.
One of the most challenging things that has to be done to put on a Fishing Has No Boundaries program is to acquire large amounts of adaptive equipment, said Overman, who will oversee the 27th annual event this summer in Hayward.
"Some don’t need adaptive equipment to make it work. Some just need to find an avenue, like a rod holder or a brace on the arm held with Velcro," she said.
Plenty of room
Participants at the June 7 event may have either physical or cognitive disabilities and should be at least 12 years old. One who has already signed up is 70 years old.
The site at Rock Creek Marina in Clinton County has lots of space and can accommodate the pontoon boats as well as other fishing craft.
McGraw hopes the event will at least offer people with disabilities something they haven’t had before or perhaps not in a long time.
Building people connections
Mike Hoenig of Davenport has been legally blind since birth and is now the program coordinator of the Center for Disabilities and Development at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.
Loneliness, he said, is a theme he hears again and again from people who are disabled. "They are not just the ones affected by loneliness,” he said, “but, unfortunately, after people get injured, it happens way too much."