My Fishing Pond takes more than minnows

by Peter Harriman (The Argus Leader)

Saturday, December 01, 2012


It's fundraising season.

Like any CEO of a nonprofit corporation, John Alvarez is preoccupied with securing the resources to keep his enterprise solvent for another year.

Since 2002, My Fishing Pond, built on rural land near his wife Dee Ann's home town of Bridgewater, has offered angling opportunities to adults dealing with brain injuries, special needs children and the elderly.  Alvarez himself suffered a brain injury in an Arizona traffic accident.  It prompted his move to South Dakota and the subsequent development of My Fishing Pond.

A hard-rock miner for more than two decades before his injury, Alvarez speaks in the booming voice of someone who was regularly explosed to the clattering roar of a jackleg drill before hearing protection became fashionable.

The volume is perfectly in keeping with the roughhewn nature of his philantrophy, and with a sandpaper demeanor that is entertaining but probably a little bit of which goes a long way.  Maybe he comes on stronger than most fundraisers.  In-kind donationas and modest contributions are not always met with fawning gratitude.  Apparently, it can lead to hard feelings.

On the fundraising landscape, "Bridgewater is milked dry," he says. "Emery wants no part of me."

He's determined, though, and that goes a long way in any enterprise.  Because of his injury, Alvarez has a restricted driver's licence.  He's limited to driving in a radius of about 30 miles from Bridgewater, and his transportation is an agricultural utility vehicle.

This does not stop Alvarez from mining the region's mother lode of charitable giving: Sioux Falls.  Taking mostly gravel roads, he can get from Bridgewater to Wall Lake Corner on his own.  A friend picks him up there and drives him into town.

Pushing rickets for a couple of big raffles, one in May, another in September, is the cornerstone of Alvarez's fundraising strategy for My Fishing Pond.

His blunt force solicitation carries over to the angling experience he offers.   Alvarez not only provides a chance to spend an enjoyable day outdoors -- any guest at My Fishing Pond is going to catch a fish.  It's like shooting fish in a barrel there.

Alvarez can ensure this by focusing on first principles.  There is no forage base in My Fishing Pond.  Fish want to eat, they rely on Alvarez.  He traps minnows in a couple of secret locations elsewhere and feeds them in bluk.  A big ball of chow hits the pond, he says, and the resident bass, crappies and catfish "just boil that water big tim.  They swarm like chickens coming towards me."

Three days before he knows a group is coming to fish, he stops feeding.

Such direct dealings extend to safeguarding the pond's population.  Most of Alvarez's guests do not have the luxury of looking up at the sky on a nice summer morning and deciding "I think I'm going to go fishing today."  An angling outing for them is a big deal, and when has just won a rod-bending tug-of-war with a fish big enough to seriously convey the notion "The could be a fair fight," it's probably not the best time to introduce the concept of catch-and-release.  It's necessary to maintain a stable population of big fish.  But it's not the best time.

"A lot of ladies from the nuring home, they say 'I caught it.  I'm taking it home,' " Alvare says.  "We fight.  I win."

My Fishing Pond could not continue without a cadre of volunteers who help the guests and do other chores, and that Alvarez seems to have assembled by rounding up the cast of Grummpy Old Men.

One, battling cancer, almost died of a bacterial infection.  Another, Three nurses are keeping him alive," Alvarez says.  A third is pushing 90.

By the way, Alvarez is looking for a volunteer to help oversee the Sioux Falls raffle.

In the group, Joe Sisco, 69, a retured teacher from the Chicago area, stands out.  He appears to be in good health, and he can drive.

Sisco's story about getting involved in My Fishing Pond reflects the strong-arm force of Alvarez's personality.  Shorly after retiring in Sioux Falls in 2003, Sisco says, he was looking for a place to fish and came across My Fishing Pond.  The concept appeared to be similar to the pay-to-fish ponds he was familiar with in Illinois.  So he went to Bridgewater, and Alvarez let him catch a couple of nice bass.  The next Monday, however, Sisco found himself helping Alvarez set concrete forms at the pond, and before he knew it, he had put 6,000 miles on his car on My Fishing Pond-related business.

But "if I didn't have My Fishing Pond, I don't know what I'd do," Sisco says. "This thing is the best thing I have done in my life."

The raffles that support My Fishing Pond have pretty swet prizes.  The respective Sioux Falls and Mitchell prize packages each feature dozens of entertainment, lodging and gift vouchers.  The golf package, in addition to such swag, offers free golfinf at eight area courses, and the September hunting raffle prize package includes a shot gun and a guided pheasant hunt.

Even better, though, are Alvarez's fundraising stories.  One year, he says, after the winning name was drawn for the Mitchell package, someone from the audience hollered "he's dead."  Unfazed, Alvarez, drew attention to the phrase printed on the bottom of the ticket stubs.  "Need not be present to win."

On another occasion, when he was selling raffle tickets in a bar, a patron gave him a donation.  Alvarez glanced at the check, $100, thanked the man and moved on.

"Did you look at that check?" the donor persisted.  Alvarez drew it from his picket.  He saw an additional zero.

"I can't accept that.  You're drunk," Alvarez said.

"I'm not that drunk," the donor replied. "Take it. You might never see it again."

The drought this summer played havoc with the minnow harvest, and in addition to the customary expenses of liability insurance and power for the pond pumps, Alvarez had to buy a new utility vehicle.  A $7,000 interest-free loan from a My Fishing Pond contributor went a long way toward making that possible, says Alvarez.  But he still owes $3,500.

Such are the challenges of the nonprofit world.  Even in John Alvarez's unlikely little corner of it, however, the charitable inpulse outweight all.

On Thursday afternoon, Sisco dropped him off at Wall Lake Corner after the two of them spent a day fundraising in Sioux Falls.  Heading toward the setting sun on a gravel road parallel to Highway 42, Alvarez faced an hour drive to get him.

Despite the low, end-of-the-day light glinting off the windshield of his utility vehicle, Alvarez's face was visible through the glass.  He was grinning ear to ear.