Everyone’s entitled to a good day of fishing, if you ask the folks behind the new nonprofit The Noel Cole Fish & Wildlife Project.
For more than three decades, people facing any number of disabilities have been invited to the Cole family’s pond to fish in a safe and easily accessible environment. Special education students from W.F. West High School came out to the pond Monday morning for some fishing — an opportunity state Fish & Wildlife officials say fosters young people’s interest in the outdoors and educators say can easily be worked into constructive curriculum.
For Michele Cole, there’s another motivation.
“I’ve been telling people, if you want to experience joy just come out and watch these kids,” she said.
Michele Cole and her family established the nonprofit — named after her father, who dug the pond back in 1974 to recreationally raise trout. He eventually began hosting fishing events for students, elders and veterans with disabilities — back in September. She said they hope to use the organization to host even more events and bolster education on fishery conservation efforts.
Fourteen students were there Monday, said W.F. West special education teacher Matt Klovdahl, who said a part of the school’s educational philosophy is to provide students opportunities they might not have on any given day.
“Kids with disabilities don’t always get the same opportunities, and so getting chances to take them fishing opens their world to the possibilities of what could be in their life,” said Klovdahl.
He said the student’s curriculum involves studying the lifecycle of fish and fish conservation efforts, so days like Monday help to contextualize the learning material while providing a unique experience.
The day’s events are made possible through a partnership between the Coles, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) and the Olympia chapter of Trout Unlimited. Those latter two organizations provide the 350 trout that are released into the small pond. Special needs students have been fishing at the pond for the past 38 years, said Michele Cole.
“They were about an hour early today because they couldn’t keep them in the classroom they were so excited,” she said Monday, as the day’s event was winding down and the students were preparing to leave.
Kelly Susewind, director of the WDFW, was on hand through the day, and said it is one of his office’s missions to support hunting and fishing activities for kids. It was his first time coming to the event, he said. Some hatchery managers came, too, to provide some educational material to the kids about hatcheries and how they work.
“It’s pretty phenomenal. The kids are pretty excited,” he said of the event.
Noel Cole, who turns 92 in September, said he started raising steelhead in the pond sometime around 1980. A couple years later, he had a conversation with a woman who said the special needs students at W.F. West were having some trouble getting in certain outdoor activities. The WDFW would release fish into ponds at Lewis and Clark State Park, but it would always be earlier in the season than the students would be able to go. A bulk of the fish would be caught before the students could get there.
That’s when Noel Cole said he got in touch with WDFW himself and they arranged a partnership that sparked the long-running event. He built wheelchair ramps and made adjustments that allowed everyone easy access to the pond. Today, it serves as a spot for scheduled events where special needs students, facility-bound adults and disabled veterans get to enjoy some fishing.