Project Healing Waters
Kelly Bostian: Project Healing Waters helps veterans through fly-fishing
By KELLY BOSTIAN Outdoors | Posted: Sunday, February 2, 2014 12:00 am
Trout Unlimited Veterans Service Partnership Coordinator Alan Folger (left) is guided to a good fishing spot on the Lower Illinois River by Tulsa Fly Fishers Vice President and new TU Board of Trustees member Scott Hood. KELLY BOSTIAN/Tulsa World
Normally the experience on the water is the subject of a story set at a trout stream, but this one takes place, mostly, with a pair of vehicles idling in the parking lot at the power station on the west bank of the Lower Illinois River at Tenkiller Dam. It was cold and windy, but we just couldn't stay out of the river Thursday. First, without thought, I took a knee to belly a trout on my line while standing in knee-deep water. It would have been a slick move had I not lost the fish and failed to remember I had about $1,500 worth of camera gear dangling below my waist.
Sorry about that one, boss.
As I tried to rescue my gear by drying it on the sun-warmed dash in my pickup truck with the defroster on high, Tulsa Fly Fishers Vice President Scott Hood walked up the hill with Alan Folger, Trout Unlimited's national Veterans Service Program coordinator.
"You guys decide to try another spot?" I asked.
"Ah, no, Alan decided to take a dip. He needs to warm up and dry out," Hood said.
No question, this was an opportune time for an interview. Here was a man who, clearly, had a close connection to the resource. You might say he was really, ahem, into it.
Folger did have a story of close connections to his job. A disabled Vietnam veteran, fly-fisherman, painter, sculptor, jewelry designer and former business executive, the Tulsa-raised angler who cut his angler's teeth on Spavinaw Creek in 1959 now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and says he has his "dream job."
He has been TU's Veteran's Service Program coordinator since it was established in January 2011. He travels the country to help chapters get involved with helping military veterans, principally in partnership with Healing Waters, a national nonprofit that seeks to help wounded veterans reconnect and heal through fly-fishing.
"When I started, we had 31 TU chapters working in partnership with Project Healing Waters," he said. "Now we have around 75 working with them, and, out of our 400 chapters across the country, 124 are a part of the Veterans Service partnership."
The goal is to get all 400 involved, he said. "I'm kind of the evangelist for the cause," he said. "I get out and talk to people and help them get going."
He was in Tulsa this week just visiting family. The local TU chapter already has a Healing Waters program not that more volunteers aren't needed.
The greatest challenge in getting chapters going is getting the word out to all Trout Unlimited members because "once people know about it, they're all-in," Folger said.
The reality is TU clubs like many other volunteer clubs may have several hundred members but about 10 percent of those will come to the monthly meetings and about 10 individuals will be the ones to do most of the hands-on work. "It's bringing that other 300 out of the woodwork," he said.
Hood, recently appointed as a grass-roots member of the national TU Board of Trustees, said local Oklahoma Trout Unlimited Chapter 420 has about 500 members, 40 or 50 who come to meetings and about 15 who are the most active. The local club liked the Healing Waters idea, but it just perked along until a volunteer came along who had the commitment and could make the time to coordinate with the Veteran's Administration and Healing Waters and help the individuals. "It can be some real work," Hood said.
Folger said the program does get a little pushback from some members, but the TU leadership is committed to helping veterans. "They'll say we're a conservation organization and that's what we should work on," Folger said.
Hood put it succinctly. "If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have anything to conserve. ... Their service to our country provides the freedom for us to do what we do."
Folger's goals include getting more young veterans involved and developing a new program that will involve families of veterans, as well.
TU works with Healing Waters, but it is not bound by the same limitations, he said. Healing Waters requires that veterans in the program have a documented disability with the Veterans Administration. All veterans are welcomed at Trout Unlimited programs, not just those carrying wounds, he said. "The younger guys, Iraq, Afghanistan veterans, they seem to avoid the VA," he said. "At the senior level at Trout Unlimited and myself, we don't care if they are disabled or not. ... All veterans in the area, you are invited, you are welcome."
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Tulsa County is home to 47,965 veterans. "We've got to figure out a way to get these younger guys involved," Folger said. "We just need to spread the word."
Read Kelly Bostian's blog at tulsaworld.com/outdoors