'[My dad] told me that fishing isn't about what you catch—it's about the memories you make. That's what I hope to pass along to every kid," said Dunn.
It all began when William Dunn started noticing the 8-year-old boy who lived across the street from him storming in and out of his own house. "I wondered what was going on in his life, so one day, I decided to ask him," the 57-year-old from Lakeland, Florida, told The Washington Post. "He told me that he didn't have a father, and I realized there might be something I could do for him." Dunn, who had grown up fishing with his dad, felt he could perhaps help use the activity to provide some sense of calm and purpose to the boy. "Fishing always brought me peace and it taught me how to be patient," he explained. "When you're on the water, you can forget about your problems and just appreciate the moment."
After getting permission from the boy's mother, the father-of-three started taking the youngster out on the water on the weekends. One thing led to another and soon, Dunn found himself teaching the boys' friends and other kids in the neighborhood how to rig a line, hold a fishing pole and reel in a big catch. Fifteen years down the line, he now takes groups of kids fishing almost every weekend. Most of them don't have a father figure in their lives and had never fished before and some were foster kids who shuffled for years from one home to the next, shared Dunn.
"They'd been through a lot and they'd seen a lot, and their lives were difficult. But when they were fishing, all of that faded away," he revealed. "Out on the boat, they’d be laughing and smiling and making new friends. I knew I was on to something." After years of spending a good chunk of his paycheck from his job selling tires to fund the weekend fishing expeditions, in 2018 Dunn started the nonprofit Take a Kid Fishing Inc. in Lakeland, a city boasting of dozens of lakes. Thanks to public and private donations to the nonprofit, he is now able to go deep-sea fishing with up to 20 kids at a time or take smaller groups on Saturday lake outings on a charter boat.
Over the past three and a half years, he and a small group of volunteers have introduced more than 2,500 kids—most of them without fathers around—to the tranquility of time on the water and the exhilaration of reeling in a fish. Dunn, who is better known as "Big Will" by the kids who join him on fishing trips, said he always felt lucky to have a dad to take him fishing when he was growing up in Miami. "I'm the youngest of six and I always had a great relationship with my dad," he said. "He lives in Tennessee now, but I still carry the lessons he taught me. He told me that fishing isn't about what you catch—it's about the memories you make. That's what I hope to pass along to every kid I introduce to fishing."
Dunn's dedication to helping youngsters has won him the respect of many in his community. "Will is authentic and meets people where they are," said Tom Pichette, a former youth pastor who has accompanied Dunn on numerous fishing trips as a volunteer. "Kids can sense that he's genuine. They've been dealt some hard cards and they climb aboard with some tough stories. But Will always accepts them as they are." Terra Pryor of Lakeland first came across Take a Kid Fishing Inc. when all three of her children were struggling emotionally after their dad, Richard Pryor, died in a car accident in January 2020.
"I was especially worried about my son, Jayden, who was 10 then," the 32-year-old shared. "He was really close to his dad and felt he needed to take over the man of the house role immediately. He was trying to be strong for everyone and didn't show his emotion. I was wondering what to do to help him, and then I learned about Take a Kid Fishing." Jayden, who is now 12, has become a devoted fisherman thanks to regular outings with Dunn. "Will has helped me to grow by taking me fishing," he said. "I hope he knows I mean it when I say, 'Thank you.'"
Pryor is glad that Jayden's fishing expeditions allow him to continue a beloved pastime from his early years with his dad. "He's loved fishing since he was little and we'd take him to a pond and put a hot dog on the line," she said. "Now he goes out once or twice a month with Will and it's wonderful to see that love for fishing continue." According to Pryor, the kids in the program all receive their own fishing poles and tackle boxes and have been known to make big catches. "But more than that, it's the relationships they're building and the healing that is happening when they're out on the water," she said. "When Jayden was going through a rough patch earlier this year, I let Will know that his grades were suffering and he had a little talk with him." When Jayden came home from his next fishing trip, he told her that Big Will had given him a sense of purpose. Soon, his grades improved.