Youth group teaches life lessons through fishing

Lloyd Louis, 9, of Miami got an impromptu casting lesson at Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway from a notable instructor.

“What I would do is bring it in really fast because the bottom is full of rocks,” Congressman Joe Garcia advised Lloyd after helping him fling his fishing line out and away from the bridge.

The fourth-grader caught on quickly, casting his bait at least 60 feet into the water and reeling it in without snagging.

“Good job!” the congressman told him.

Garcia, a Democrat who represents South Miami-Dade and the Keys, was invited to the outing by the nonprofit Mahogany Youth Corporation, which for some 20 years has steered impoverished inner-city youngsters away from crime and drugs by introducing them to recreational fishing.

Led by former prison youth drug counselor Robert O’Bryant and wife Kathleen Elliott, a former stockbroker, the all-volunteer group says it took more than 2,700 youngsters and teens from Miami-Dade and Broward counties on all sorts of outdoors adventures over the past year. Fishing, of course, was the main activity.

But Mahogany participants also went camping and kayaking, cleaned up local waterways, learned to swim, and two teens even got certified as open-water scuba divers recently in Key Largo.

“What they’re doing is God’s work,” said Garcia, who grew up fishing on the Rickenbacker. “What these folks do is keeping these kids out of trouble.”

Mahogany subsists entirely on grants and donations from organizations such as the National Parks Conservation Association, Bait Em Up Bait & Tackle, Florida Sea Grant and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.

But as its mission of “hooked on fishing — not on drugs” expands, so does the need for funding.

Despite the group’s longevity and successes, it still is not very well-known among the myriad charities operating in South Florida.

“What we’ve been doing is trying to get them connected,” said Antonio Fins, executive director of the Ocean Foundation. “They’re the best-kept secret in Miami-Dade, and that’s not a good thing. What they do is phenomenal. We’ll fund them, but we need these guys to get well-known.”

Besides introducing underprivileged kids to the outdoors, Mahogany encourages them to stay in school and aim high for employment.

“There’s a certain behavior the job wants from them. We prepare them for that,” O’Bryant said.

Newly certified scuba diver Michael Turner, 16, is definitely looking beyond the conventional for job possibilities.

“I want to use it in the future,” the Miami Northwestern High School junior said of his scuba skill. “I want to work at the Seaquarium and be a biologist or a neurosurgeon.”

Fins hopes more kids look to the oceans for job prospects.

“I want these kids to appreciate the oceans,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of career opportunities. Rob and Kathleen get kids excited about it.”

For more information about the Mahogany Youth Corporation, go to www.mahoganyyouth.com.