Forty Austin community members braved winter-like weather on Oct. 15 to attend the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) second annual Chicago-area “Fish with a First Responder” event at Columbus Park.

Members of Chicago Firefighters Local 2, Chicago Police Sergeants Association, the 15th District CAPS Unit, Community Safety Team and Chicago K-9 Unit volunteered to teach neighborhood kids how to fish and provid a lunch of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers.

Though the 40-degree temperature may have kept some people away from the free community event, organizers Doug Aller and Sherry Long of New Concept Benefit Group were pleased so many West Side residents and members of the police and fire departments came together.

Larry Stuckert of the Chicago K-9 Unit with one of the families who attended the Oct. 15th event at Columbus Park. | AustinTalks

“Our company does financial planning for first responders. We understand that, in most cases, people in the community only see them during stressful times — perhaps the worst day of their lives,” Aller said in a statement. “This fishing event is an opportunity to bring community members and first responders together in a fun, positive environment where they can get to know each other on a personal level.”

“Community events like this help to break down barriers,” added Jim Calvino, president of the Chicago Police Sergeants Association. “It shows the neighborhood that police aren’t there only in bad situations, and it allows kids and officers to talk with each other as regular people — just as human beings.”

Each child received a free rod-and-reel combo courtesy of the USA, and with help from the volunteers, they tried their hand at fishing in Columbus Park’s lagoon, which Fire Fighters Local 2 had stocked with several hundred bluegills ahead of time.

“For many of the children, it was their first exposure to fishing,” said Pat Quane, Local 2 director of public relations. “All the kids had a lot of fun, and hopefully, the experience will make a difference in their lives and spark an interest in the outdoors, so maybe they grab their new fishing pole instead of watching television or just hanging out.”

Timmy Fitzgerald volunteered at the event with his father Tim Fitzgerald, a firefighter in South Chicago, by helping other youths rig rods-and-reels, cast, bait hooks and untangle lines. | AustinTalks

Firefighter Tim Fitzgerald, assigned to Engine 50 Firehouse in South Chicago, also took the opportunity to involve his 13-year-old son, Timothy, as a volunteer.

“Timmy started fishing at a very young age and has a lot of experience for a teenager,” Fitzgerald said. “He helped rig rods-and-reels and taught kids to cast, bait hooks and untangle lines. I think seeing that there are a lot of kids his own age out there who’ve never even had a chance to go fishing before was a real revelation for him.”

Fish with a First Responder is just one in a series of community outreach events and conservation projects held through the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground conservation program.

Through the program, union members volunteer their time and skills to build key outdoor infrastructure, such as fishing docks, boat ramps, hiking trails and target shooting facilities, in public outdoor recreation areas, and they also introduce people to the outdoors through outreach events like the one held at Columbus Park.

“The USA’s mission is to unite the union community through conservation to preserve North America’s outdoor heritage,” said USA Conservation Coordinator Cody Campbell, “and that includes helping people learn how to pursue outdoor activities, so they can enjoy them for the rest of their lives.”