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December 02, 2011   Email to Friend 

Fishing with Angels
Jeff Helms

Drew Hicks of Ashford Elementary School lands a big fish.
When Larry "Joe" Phillips envisions the Heavenly host, he doesn't just think of harps and hymns. This Houston County farmer pictures kids with cane poles squealing wildly when one of their friends lands a fish.

"If anyone wants to see an angel, all they have to do is look out there," said Phillips as he gestured toward a pond surrounded by about 600 special needs children and volunteers.

The annual gathering, which Phillips and wife Faye call "Fishing With Angels," was started in 1997 as a way to help disabled children enjoy the outdoors. Today, it not only provides a recreational opportunity for students from 17 Houston County schools, it also honors the Phillipses' late granddaughter, Tiffany Marie Bernard, who passed away in 2002.

"God blessed us with a special child," Phillips said. "He let us borrow her for 13 years, and we wanted to carry on her legacy. A lot of people don't know how to act around special kids. But all they ask is to be loved."

One of the children getting attention from the volunteers during the October event was Ashford Elementary School student Drew Hicks, 6.

"It's a big fish," said Drew as he displayed his catch. "I got a big fish."

Drew's teacher, Elizabeth West, said her students look forward to "Fishing With Angels" every year.

"Nobody is disabled today," she said. "We just get to come out here and have fun."

The students, parents, teachers and volunteers also are provided lunch, thanks to the support of local businesses and organizations.

Houston County Sheriff Andy Hughes said his deputies enjoy helping with the event.

"It does us good to see these kids have a good time," he said. "This is as much a part of our jobs as putting the bad guys in jail."

Tabatha Smith said her son, Travis, couldn't wait to get to the pond.

"This is all he's been talking about," said Tabatha, as she kneeled beside Travis' wheelchair to steady his fishing pole. "Ever since the paper was sent home from school, he asks me every morning if it's field trip day."

The special needs children, however, aren't the only students who benefit from "Fishing With Angels."

Michaela Tillery, president of the Junior Civitan Club at Ashford High School, has helped her friend, Tabitha Meadows, with Special Olympics and other activities since ninth grade. Michaela said it's rewarding to spend time with students who may not have as many extra-curricular opportunities.

"It's the best feeling in the world to be able to help her and see the smile on her face," Michaela said.

Ashford High School FFA Advisor Donya Holland has students lining up to help with "Fishing with Angels," even though their main job is to clean the fish.

"I believe it's an invaluable education experience," Holland said. "Not only do they learn how to clean and dress fish properly, but they also get to help our special citizens of Houston County experience the outdoors."

Patti Flowers, a teacher at Girard Elementary School in Dothan, said it's equally important for the special education students to spend time with their non-disabled peers.

"It's a great experience for them," she said. "It's an opportunity for them to do something they don't normally get to do, and it's an opportunity for more socialization."

For the Phillipses, however, the benefits of "Fishing with Angels" go far beyond recreation and fellowship. It's about celebrating the value and uniqueness of every life.

"We get a greater blessing out of this than they do," Faye said. "When I look at all these kids, I see God. I see my granddaughter, who's with God right now. These are God's children."

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