Steve Davis was 35 years old before he was able to speak about the abuse he experienced as a child. Until then, he felt ashamed and embarrassed. Once he realized he could use his voice and his story to help others, it became his mission. In 2012, Steve was inspired to share the profound healing capacity he found in fly fishing out West. The sound of the clear rushing water. The breathtaking surrounding scenery. The excitement of learning a new skill. The feeling of accomplishment upon hooking a fish. The tranquil setting to reflect and connect with yourself and others. All of these elements created a nurturing place for Steve to heal from the trauma of abuse, and he felt called to share that with other children seeking solace from similar circumstances.
Steve believes that every child — no matter their story — is worthy of love, care, and compassion. That’s why he founded On River Time, a Birmingham-based non-profit organization centered on empowering children of neglect and abuse by providing them an unexpected safe haven: a fly fishing trip. Since its founding in 2012, On River Time has given children ages 9 to 16 years old who’ve endured abuse and neglect a chance to heal through fly fishing on the famous Snake River in Idaho.
Each year, On River Time brings a group of kids to their camp for a week-long fishing trip, connecting them with children facing similar issues, positive mentors, and the peaceful solace of the river. On River Time trips are comprised of youth from four different children’s homes: Big Oak Ranch in Springville, Alabama; Palmer Home near Oxford, Mississippi; Homes of Hope for Children near Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Still Creek Ranch in Bryan, Texas. To know that they are worthy of a trip like this — that a group of people cares about them enough to take them on an adventure far away from home — makes a mark as impactful as the trip itself.
“From boarding a plane for the first time, to flying over the Tetons, to seeing the Snake River, the setting itself starts it all,” Steve Davis tells me. “We often find that it is not the big things but the small things that can change a perspective. You rarely find hope without feeling valued. Over the years, I’ve found that — even with all that’s around them — their highlight reel is how someone on this trip made them ‘feel.’ They won’t forget that feeling … ever,” he says.
Ann Grace, a young woman who’s attended multiple On River Time trips, says, “This trip has never failed to soften my heart. These last couple of months, even weeks, have been especially challenging, and it’s an amazing feeling to just live and let go. I learn something new about myself every time I come back to camp. My eyes have definitely been opened about living in the moment and not being anxious about the future. The memories from On River Time camp will live in my heart forever. My faith has grown and strengthened. I am forever grateful.”
Another key player in bringing On River Time’s magic to life is Wendy Garner, the nonprofit’s Executive Director and an award-winning television veteran who worked as a news anchor, reporter, and show host for WVTM in Birmingham as well as other stations. “Many of these kids have never been on a plane before. We take them to one of the most beautiful and majestic places in the United States, the Snake River in Idaho and the Grand Tetons outside Jackson Hole. They are surrounded by caring adults who speak life into them, and they meet new friends from another children’s home, kids just like them,” Wendy tells me.“At camp, we talk about a lot of serious topics like hope, trust, worth, and fears,” Wendy continues. “We have a campfire ceremony where we ‘burn our fears.’ Everyone writes a fear they have on a piece of paper and throws it into the fire to demonstrate that it doesn’t have a hold over them anymore. This year, one teenage boy shared that his mother and father were abusive to him. His fear was that he would grow up to be like his father. This young man is one of the kindest, gentlest souls you could meet. A few days later, at the end of camp, as we said our goodbyes, I told him I look forward to meeting his family one day, because I know he’s going to be a great husband and father.”
The organization has sent 160 kids to On River Time camp in Idaho and has provided 40 scholarships to high school graduates since 2012. Their new program, SOAR (Success, Opportunity, Attitude, and Resiliency), teaches college-aged students life skills like interview tactics, résumé writing, business ethics and dining etiquette to prepare them to flourish as independent adults. They’re gearing up for the first-ever “Stay and SOAR” retreat for these young adults this month at Pursell Farms.
On River Time is so much more than just the fishing trip. It’s the memories, the conversations, and the powerful new moments that will take over the devastating ones of the past. The continued support and mentorship of these children and young adults year-round reaffirm the inspiration to “dream big” that every trip out West tends to evoke.
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