July 15, 2023
On the way to the airport, I stopped at the drive-through coffee stand and ordered an Americano. I leaned over to my teenage daughter, Delaney, in the passenger seat and elbowed her, joking that the barista had better use arabica beans. “You know, since you’re going to Honduras and all,” I said. “Get it? Since you’re going to Honduras and they have mostly arabica coffee there—get it?” She rolled her eyes, but gave me the charity laugh she’d become accustomed to offering after each of my unsolicited bad jokes.
When the barista handed me my drink, I put a tip in the jar on the window sill. I noticed a sticker on the jar that read, “If you fear change, leave it here.”
Still swinging for the fences with cheesy jokes, I winked at Delaney, “So we’re only supposed to leave a tip if we’re afraid of change?” Again, an eye roll in response. Again, a charity laugh.
The truth is, Delaney has always been cautious of change. Steady, kind and funny, she thrives on consistency and a stable environment. While she’s capable, smart, and resourceful, she’s also uneasy at being forced to guess the outcome of life’s dynamics.
So, it shocked the heck out of me when she agreed to apply for a spot in the Fish for Change program in Guanaja, Honduras. Delaney was barely 14 years old then, and this would be her first big trip traveling alone. She fundraised her tuition, assembled loaner saltwater gear, booked her flights, and set her sights on a big adventure. She hoped she’d catch a bonefish, and maybe even get a shot at a permit.
But, on the day of her departure, it all started to unravel. Delaney panicked. She was afraid of traveling alone, afraid of the language barrier in a country she’d never before visited, afraid of not knowing the other students, and afraid of not having the fishing ability she felt she needed to be successful. Sitting in the airport at her departure gate, Delaney dug in her heels and refused to board the plane. “I’m not going. I can’t do it. I can’t go,” she said, tears streaming.
I was furious, and not at all comforting, understanding, or patient. Instead, I thought of all the time and money wasted and the effort that would go into returning the funds she’d raised. I lamented the memories she would have made, the good work she could have done for the fishery, the personal growth she would have experienced. We watched the last passenger board and I sighed in defeat as the gate attendant closed the door. “Okay,” I said. “That’s that. Let’s go home.”
I carried her bags and she shuffled behind me, her head down. I could hear her trying to breathe through her tears, but I was so mad that I didn’t look back or hold her hand.
When we got to the truck in the airport parking lot, my phone beeped with an alert from Delta. Delaney’s flight had been delayed an hour, and passengers were allowed to get off the plane and wait at the gate as mechanics fixed some sort of problem. I whipped around to Delaney and said with a raised voice, “This is a sign. Get. On. The. Plane.” Her eyes got wide. She didn’t say anything, but I could see on her face that I had scared her even more. I felt terrible.
I dropped her bags, put my arms around her, and hugged her hard. “I’m sorry I pushed you,” I said. “And I’m sorry I haven’t been supportive of your worries. You’ve wanted to do this for a long time. And I think you still want to, but you’re scared. I get that. We can work through that fear together. The other kids might be scared, too.”
She started crying again, but I could feel her head nodding through our hug. She stepped away, bent down and picked up her bags, and turned to walk toward the airport entrance. “I do want to do it, Mama,” she said. I let out a whoop, and trotted to catch up. She had just enough time to go back through security, grab a snack, and board, somehow without hesitation. She texted me a photo of her hand at her window seat, waving goodbye. I texted with a photo of my hand waving back.
Almost five years later, Delaney still harbors certain reservations when it comes to the unknown. But she balances that with healthy confidence and openness as she wades through school, jobs, international travel, conservation efforts, and relationships. She attributes much of her current strength to Fish for Change.
“Fish for Change helped form who I am now,” says Delaney. “Going into my first trip at just 14 years old, I had no idea the impact that it would have on me. Getting a new perspective was huge—I gained more understanding of fishing, culture, and life outside of my own little world. And the friends I have gained from around the world have stuck with me.”
Fish for Change is a nonprofit organization geared toward strengthening the planet and its inhabitants by uniting teenagers in wild fisheries where they can engage in a variety of initiatives that promote connection, education, conservation, and exploration.
Founder Steve Brown says Fish for Change was born of his observation that fly anglers and guides are constantly fishing for ways to help improve life on Earth. He saw the positive impact his lodge Fly Fish Guanaja was making on the local community, and, as a former school teacher in Colorado, saw an opportunity for students to join in.
“The student program formed organically in Guanaja when a boy named Noah Thompson came to Fly Fish Guanaja without his parents at 13 years old,” says Brown. “We planted mangroves, wrote a journal, and Noah caught the first student permit on a fly. The program grew by word of mouth, seemingly created by the students themselves.”
Soon, the program became an official nonprofit and expanded into four additional countries. Steve hired Heather Harkavy as executive director in 2022.
“Heather self-created a career out of Fish for Change and brought the program to life,” says Brown. “Our first students came in 2010 and many of them are helping Heather run the organization now. Profoundly, all of our students illustrate the impact Fish for Change has on their lives with career choices, deepening friendships, and growing stewardship to the natural world. The greatest honor in our industry is passing on the relationship to water that defines our lives.”
The student program allowed Fly Fish Guanaja to transform from a fishing lodge into a campus for the months of June and July.
During the weeklong experience, students team up with local conservation organizations that run projects such as coral restoration, mangrove planting,
lionfish eradication, and coastal cleanups. “All of these projects we do alongside the local community and students in order to encourage and educate the importance of protecting the places we love,” says Harkavy.
“Our cultural exchange has been very empowering for local kids. On Fridays it is “Bring Your Kid to Work Day” where all of the fishing lodge staff has their kids come to shadow them. This is so important to the next generation of sport-fishing tourism and very encouraging. Our local scholarship initiative provides the opportunity for kids who are interested in one day being guides to learn from their mentors and become apprentices of the sport.”
And Harkavy says it’s the resulting personal growth within each participant that can truly change the world. The development is nurtured by the curriculum, which focuses on confidence, passion, and empathy. Harkavy says, “Students start off being too nervous to share in evening discussions, and by the end of the week they are leading the discussions. They return home with something they take pride in that becomes a large part of their identity. They become better humans by bonding with people from different races, religions, environments, and upbringings. The more they ask questions, learn, and understand each other, the more our empathy and relatability for the human experience grows.”
“Our youth are more disconnected every day. Disconnected from each other, the natural world, and any sense of something greater than all of us,” says Brown. “The more we are plugged into technology, the more unplugged we are to authentic connection with each other and Earth. The future of Fish for Change is spreading this connection, and making it more available to more students throughout the world. Currently we are developing local, more affordable programs that will give many more students the opportunity to experience Fish for Change regardless of their family’s income.”
Most recently, Fish for Change launched a program in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley with a lower tuition cost than the international programs. “We have a big fishery, many guides and volunteers, and a student population that represents the rest of the country with mental health challenges stemming from disconnection and technology,” says Brown. “And, the local Colorado program is designed to be replicated anywhere in the world.”
Kendall Powery is a fly-fishing guide with Fish for Change in Guanaja. He previously worked on a commercial snapper boat, but got curious when he saw other fishermen catching game species on a fly. He quickly learned the skill, and paired it with his vast knowledge of the ocean and ecosystem in Honduras. “I love to pass what I learn to the kids,” says Powery. “I love to show them how to be patient and respectful, and how to love one another and work as a team. When I was a kid, I always wanted to do something great. When you really want something, you appreciate life more. Fly fishing is the best thing I’ve ever discovered. It changed my life, and I want to change other kids’ lives by showing them that when you put all your love into it you will be rewarded.”
Fish for Change is currently running programs in Honduras, Mexico, Bahamas, United States, and Costa Rica. While the cost ranges from around $2,700 to $4,000, scholarships are available, made possible by grants and donations from sponsors.
If Fish for Change were to put out a tip jar it would likely say, “If you value change, leave it here.” Tax-deductible, of course.
Hilary Hutcheson started guiding as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she guides on the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana.