Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kelly's Boat - A Tribute to Community

Near the top of my list of uncountable blessings is the time and freedom to pursue a couple hobbies. Lately, I've spent a lot of my leisure time fly fishing. There's a peaceful, meditative rhythm to it, an enormous and engaging body of knowledge to tackle, and of course, the excitement of catching (and for me, anyway, releasing) fish. In the thick middle of the Texas summer I can think of few things better than getting up before dawn to cast to the bass in a local pond.

When I started fishing in earnest here in Texas, I expected to learn a lot, have some fun, and maybe even make some friends. What I did not expect was the opportunity to participate in a powerful community, and to touch someone else's life, even in a small way.

Kelly is a single mom in East Texas with a passion for the outdoors, and like other participants in the Texas Fishing Forum, she loves to fly fish. When I turned up at that forum to ask questions about fishing in my new home waters, she was among the first to chime in with friendly, helpful advice. Though all of the regular members of the freshwater fly fishing group are generous with advice, it was clear from the beginning that Kelly was one of the key members of the community. It was also clear why: she's positive, helpful, bright, funny, and supportive. To everybody.

One morning I checked the board and saw a new discussion: "Let's get Kelly a boat." Owning a boat would give Kelly the oppotunity not only to fish more water, but to take her teenaged son out fishing more often and to give him more chances to have fun in and learn about the outdoors. Good stuff.

People on the forum started looking around their areas for serviceable, used boats available for little money. Within a few days, someone found a motivated seller willing to take just a few hundred dollars to get a boat out of his Southeast Texas backyard. The boat would need some work to be "lakeworthy," but it seemed to have a sound hull and a transom and motormount suitable for a small outboard or trolling motor. The project seemed to be moving right along - everyone was excited. Plans for collecting money and making the transaction came together in days. Then hurricane Ike ripped through the Gulf Coast. When the scramble to find friends & relatives subsided, the seller reported that the boat was gone. Kelly thanked everyone for their efforts and that seemed to be that.

Perhaps a month later someone posted a message: "Let's restart the 'let's get Kelly a boat' thread." Within hours the thread grew to multiple pages as people chimed in wanting to help. Someone found another boat, this one in need of paint, a new seat, some floor work, and a motormount. The seller wanted just a couple hundred dollars. The fellow who posted the new thread sent messages to everyone who offered to help. I sent a check for a small amount of money and waited to hear more about the project. What happened next blew me away.

I had expected that Kelly would accumulate enough money to buy the boat and that she would get it and be happy and there wouldn't be much more talk about it on the forum except perhaps a thread here and there about her joy in fishing from it. This would've been great, of course. Instead, people from all around the forum stepped up to help Kelly in ways that surprised me. One fellow picked the boat up for her and drove it to East Texas. Someone else donated a trolling motor and made arrangements for shipping. Another few people gave life-vests and other safety equipment. Yet more people came through with other parts or even labor to help her get the boat ready.

Kelly put up a message saying that she was installing a new seat, and that she was painting in the names of everyone who donated or participated in the boat project. Her gratitude throughout the project has been so visible and so touching, and I have no doubt that it has fueled the project in a warm and happy, self-reinforcing "virtuous circle." Although I played only the very tiniest part in this project - after all, the total of all the work I put into it was addressing an envelope and walking to the mailbox - I got more joy and satisfaction from it than from catching all the fish I've caught over the last year.

Given the dramatic tone of world news today it is tempting either to throw ourselves at the biggest, most terrifying problems, or to check out, be cynical, and resign ourselves to dullness or darkness. Helping someone get a boat doesn't cure cancer, stop genocide in Darfur, end hunger, or overthrow cruel despots, right?

What if it does, though? What if the solution to every problem, no matter how big or how small, had its seed in a community of even just a few people whose common interests pull them to act kindly on behalf of just one member? What if?

Try an experiment: find a community and find an opportunity to serve it. Pick one small kindness to do on behalf of a member, and see what support you can generate. If by chance some wonderful thing blossoms from your effort, you will have touched another person's life forever, and I promise you will be grateful that you did.

A couple other neat fly fishing-related community actions:
Project Healing Waters
Casting for Recovery