Will Dunn has fished most of his life. He grew up in Miami, where his father owned a commercial fishing business. From an early age, he was regularly out on a boat, learning to catch lobster and crab and reeling in a variety of fish.
As a youngster, Will also fished on his own. Schools in the area were rough, and fishing kept him on a positive track.
“It kept me out of trouble,” he says. “I mean, I wasn’t a perfect kid, but I would get home from school every day, pick up my rod, get my bicycle and go fish the local ponds in Miami. Fishing gave me a peace, and a feeling of joy.”
Now living in Lakeland with a family of his own, Will still enjoys fishing as a recreational sport. But fishing is more than that to Will. It is a way to help others.
His fishing ministry began when Will and his wife, Heather, looked out their kitchen window during dinner one night and saw a young neighbor boy acting out.
“He was about 7 years old, and he was in his yard breaking stuff,” Will recalls. “You could see he had a lot of frustration. I found out his dad wasn’t part of his life, so I started taking him fishing on Saturdays.”
Will soon saw a dramatic shift in the boy’s behavior. He was calmer, more relaxed and more confident.
“Once I saw what it did for him, I started taking other kids fishing—kids living in group homes,” Will says.
He expanded his reach to foster children and those who have lost their dads.
Because Will works full-time in tire sales, these are Saturday excursions.
“When they get on a boat with us, they forget about their troubles,” Will says. “We go out in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re about 11 miles out. They have no phone service, so they can’t get on their devices. Everything is concentrated on what we’re teaching them.”
Lessons range from developing patience to learning how to execute a task and celebrate when a goal is accomplished—and realizing somebody cares.
“Fishing teaches them patience, which is good because a lot of them are frustrated the way they’ve been raised without a family,” Will says.
Many of the youngsters—boys and girls alike—have never been on a boat or held a fishing pole, he says, so they’re excited to learn how to do something they’ve never done before.
“Many of them get to catch their first bass on one of these trips,” Will says. “For some of these kids, when they’re fishing, there’s a sense of peace just to feel the tug on the rod. I tell people, ‘The tug’s the drug,’ because often troubled kids will end up turning to drugs and other things.”
The fishing experience goes beyond time spent on the water.
“It’s not just a one-day trip,” Will says. “We connect with these kids like they’re family. We’re often invited to go back to the group homes for fish fries after we catch the fish. It becomes an extended family.”
A man of faith, Will also tries to offer comfort by sharing a bit of what he believes.
“I just want the kids to know that even though they don’t have a biological father, they have a heavenly father who loves them,” Will says.
The children clearly feel a connection to the 6-foot-tall, 280-pound guy with a gentle heart that they fondly refer to as “Big Will.”
Tyler Reinke, an 11-year-old whose father died four years ago, has gone fishing with Will many times.
“I have a great time with him,” Tyler says, “and it relieves my stress and stuff. He’s a nice man.”
His mom, Amanda Burry, agrees.
“Will is great with the kids, and his wife, Heather, is also amazing,” Amanda says. “She helps organize things when she has time. But he goes above and beyond.”
She says when Tyler’s TV stopped working, Will went through a local agency to get him a new one.
“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got a TV for my buddy,’” Amanda says. “Will has also brought him fishing poles to the house. I mean, he’ll give you the shirt off his back.”
For more than a decade, Will and Heather covered all costs associated with the fishing trips on their own. Then, someone recommended they form a nonprofit. They established their 501(c)(3) Take a Kid Fishing nonprofit in 2018.
Since then, businesses have come on board as sponsors, ensuring Will can take a lot more youth fishing in the future.
“It just fills my heart,” Will says. “With my little neighbor, I saw what it did for him, and my philosophy was ‘just one more.’ But it’s gotten so much bigger than one more. It’s in the thousands.”