For nearly 20 years, Robert O’Bryant has operated on the principle that the fish hook can be more powerful than a drug.
The former prison youth counselor and his wife of three years, Kathleen, are the backbones of the nonprofit, Miami-based Mahogany Youth Corporation, which seeks to lead youngsters and teens away from a life of drug addiction, violence and poverty and toward the healthy lifelong hobby of fishing — and hopefully higher education and a productive career.
The group has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the 1990s, fishing with a handful of kids for tilapia in the trash-clogged pond at Liberty City’s Gwen Cherry Park. Last year, Mahogany conducted more than 2,000 kids from Miami-Dade and Broward counties on fishing trips aboard South Florida party boats, from shore at Biscayne National Park and the Rickenbacker Causeway, in Everglades canals and elsewhere. The O’Bryants are assisted by a cadre of volunteer chaperones, including young adults who first joined the group in elementary school.
“Everywhere we go, kids want to fish,” Robert O’Bryant said. “With the problems in our community with violence and crime, we didn’t want a party club, a social club. This is a mentoring program. We have the older guys mentor the younger guys.”
Among those mentors is 22-year-old Elisha Williams of Miami, who began attending Mahogany events when he was 6. Now working part-time as a clerk in a Winn-Dixie warehouse while studying to be a pharmacy technician at Miami-Dade College, Williams enjoys sharing his favorite pastime with youngsters.
“It’s very exciting with me not having children at all,” he said. “What I learn from them is that they are just like me. I was afraid of worms before. That was me. If I can teach them everything I learned, I pass it down.”
Williams joined the O’Bryants and about 30 other chaperones and youths at a recent daylong shore fishing outing at the L-29 canal paralleling Tamiami Trail west of Miami. He spent the day rigging fishing outfits with hooks, bobbers and bait and coaching newcomers on how to cast. It was a special “Everglades Day” event, with fishing tackle, food and other equipment funded by a grant from the National Parks Conservation Association.
The fishing grounds were chosen to be within sight of the new one-mile Tamiami Trail bridge, built to unblock the sheet flow of water from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades conservation areas to Everglades National Park — widely considered to be a major environmental improvement.
“The whole idea is to let them know, ‘this is in your backyard — it’s fun,’ ” said Kahlil Kettering, an NPCA staffer. “This is a place for you. You own it. You don’t have to get permission to use it.”
Fishing was a bit slow that day; only three fish — two bluegill and an exotic Mayan cichlid were caught. But the young anglers seemed to be having fun.
“Today, I caught a fish, but it kept stealing my worm,” Jemelle Bowers said. “I think fishing is very exciting. You see pretty things in the water. I’m a very good caster.”
Karnicia Dames, 11, said fishing offers choices.
“I like fishing because you get to catch fish or eat the fish or put it back in the water,” she said.
Besides the “hooked on fishing — not on drugs” message, Mahogany volunteers encourage kids to talk about their problems, dreams and hopes for the future — such as higher education and a career.
One of the program’s early disciples — 31-year-old Ben Sharpe of Miami, who joined in 1995 — has turned recreational fishing into a successful career.
After spending six years in the U.S. Navy as a meteorologist, Sharpe now earns a comfortable living as a charter- and tournament-boat crew member.
“I grew up with those guys,” Sharpe said of the Mahogany group. “It was an opportunity to get into fishing with a group with the same interest as me. Really nice people. If you needed advice, even if it wasn’t about fishing, they were there. It’s a great outlet.”
For more information about the Mahogany Youth Corporation, visit www.mahoganyyouth.com or call 305-603-7451.