Children from all over Pinellas County take part in one of the annual Make A Difference fishing tournaments at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach.
CLEARWATER – For more than two decades, children from all across Tampa Bay have gathered to cast their rods and reels into local waters as they laugh and play and enjoy the camaraderie of a shared rite of childhood.
But these particular kids are more than the sum of their parts.
They are extraordinary – a distinction that sets them apart and brings them together.
Founded 22 years ago, the Make A Difference Fishing Tournament serves local children with disabilities through four tournaments a year – all in the effort to facilitate an involvement in marine education and recreation.
But for the most part, it’s just to have a good time.
At least that’s how tournament organizer Dawn Lewellyn sees it.
“We work with a lot of special needs kids,” Lewellyn said. “But when they come out, they are just like regular kids. Whether they have wheelchairs or walkers, nobody’s different – everyone’s the same.
“That’s really why we do what we do,” she continued.
The four tournaments – three held in Pinellas County and the fourth held in Georgia – provide a safe, fun-filled day of fishing for disabled kids and their families, completely free of charge, said organizer Vonnie Schaffer.
“It doesn’t cost them a thing,” Schaffer said, adding that the nonprofit provides rods, reels and bait, along with T-shirts, for all who participate.
This is all accomplished thanks to one major fundraising effort each year, Schaffer said, which just happens to be right around the corner.
The nonprofit will host a benefit auction and casino night at 6 p.m. on Aug. 19 at the Hilton Clearwater Beach, 400 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater.
“We are all volunteers here,” Schaffer said. “All the money we raise goes directly back into the tournament.”
Next week’s event will feature silent and live auction items such as trips, bicycles, artwork, fishing charters, gift baskets, and will include hotel stays, tickets to the Dali Museum and MOSI, as well as Busch Gardens, Disney and a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee – all donated from community members and businesses.
“We’ve got some really nice donations,” Schaffer said. “We have tremendous support from the community.”
Food on the night of the event will be provided by Baystar Restaurant Group, Clear Sky Cafe, Sea Sea Riders, Capogna’s Dugout, Abe’s Place Grill, Alessi Bakery and Hooters.
Tickets are $35 per person or three for $100 until Aug. 12.
And that’s a small price to pay for the joy it brings to so many in the area, Schaffer said.
“It’s just amazing,” Schaffer said. “Just from experience, to see these kids each year. They just love coming out there.
“To see so many parents with their children, seeing their face light up with smiles, it’s just so beautiful.”