It’s an iconic image from American TV in the 1960s – a freckle-faced Opie Taylor sitting lakeside with a fishing pole in his hands, chatting about life with his father, Sheriff Andy Taylor.

Not every child has that Mayberry moment.

Across Southwest Florida, there are thousands of vulnerable children and teens who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents. They may be living in foster homes or temporary shelters as their child welfare cases play out in court. Their daily routines consist of going to school and going home, with occasional visits from social workers or child protective services. That’s it – nothing particularly noteworthy, exciting or memorable for a child.

Meanwhile, these vulnerable youth are living in a beautiful region with so much to offer – beaches, sports teams, museums, boating, entertainment complexes, nature trails and performing arts centers. So close, yet so far.

“There are so many things in Southwest Florida that as adults we take for granted, but many children don’t have opportunities to share those experiences; they lack hope that their circumstances will change,” said Jessica Stanfield, executive director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, 20th Judicial Circuit. “It’s important that we find a way to create experiences, and memories, to make sure these children know what it’s like to be a child. Unfortunately, many have been forced to grow up too quickly.”

The foundation’s Children’s Needs Program provides court-appointed volunteer child advocates with funding for “extras” in a child’s life, like birthday parties, theme park tickets, tutoring, summer camp programs, movie tickets and sports registration fees. The foundation also has a growing network of supporters, sponsors and donors who are helping ensure that children don’t miss out on opportunities they enjoyed as a child.

One of those individuals is Dean Britt, a resident of The Quarry in Naples who served as a board member for Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) organizations in New Jersey and Texas. After retiring to Florida, he reached out to Guardian ad Litem Foundation about creating a special event for children in Southwest Florida – a Fishing Derby. The event wouldn’t be about catching the biggest fish or most fish; rather, it would focus on creating memories, teaching children about the environment and showing youth how to bait a hook, cast a line and be patient.

Britt rounded up fishing club members at The Quarry to serve as fishing guides, and he and another resident purchased rods, reels and tackle boxes stocked with hooks, bobbers, lures and other fishing essentials. Guardian ad Litem Foundation shared details of the Fishing Derby, which was open to all children in Southwest Florida, including those represented by volunteer child advocates.

Every child that participated in the inaugural Fishing Derby on March 25 caught a fish, but they also went home with a nature lesson.

“You learn about the outdoors, you learn about nature, conservation,” Britt said of fishing. “You see other wildlife. Here in Florida, there are a lot of gators, snakes and other wildlife that live around the lake, and we can use this opportunity to teach about conservation, the importance of protecting natural habitats and other important topics in the environment.”

Plans are already underway for a second Fishing Derby next spring.

“Once you get them out here hooked on fishing, they’ll do it forever and they’ll carry on the tradition with their children. That’s how most of us started as kids,” Britt said. “If we touch the life of just one student out here and they become a biologist or want to pursue a career in the outdoors, this is all worth it.”

Who knows, maybe that Mayberry moment might have just been created at the Fishing Derby.