Few people exemplify the old adage about teaching a man to fish like Alan Erickson.
A veteran himself, he’s the founder of the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry in Evergreen and for the past seven years has also been repairing and giving away fishing poles for his clients.
“We were getting donated a lot of fishing poles, and half of them were missing parts — they were broken, or had no reels, and then we’d get somebody who donated a reel, or scrounged up some line or eyes for poles, and I started putting them together,” Erickson said.
In 2000, Erickson started providing meals to hungry and homeless veterans. Over time, it evolved into a brick-and-mortar charity organization, which in part operates off donations from its thrift store. An avid fisherman, Erickson said he started fixing up the broken fishing poles — ranging from fly rods to poles for deep sea and ice fishing — as a therapeutic break from his day-to-day work at the food pantry.
But even though he has a backlog of fishing poles he’s working to get fixed up, Erickson isn’t looking for volunteers to help him with the ongoing project. Just materials.
“My therapy time is my time,” Erickson said. He’s not known to mince words.
One of his clients, George Vincent, is a disabled veteran who moved to Columbia Falls five years ago. He ran into Erickson one day when he was at the food pantry, and offered to help secure some materials for the project.
“I spoke to Adam Trina, the owner of Montana Fly Company, about the housing program that I belong to, and I was telling him we have very limited income and most of us aren’t able to get fish through the year,” Vincent said. “I told him it would be nice to get us to catch our own meals and get outside, to get some exercise and peace and quiet, and just enjoy the day.”
He said that Trina offered fishing flies and other equipment to help with the project. About 125 poles are still waiting to be fixed, requiring everything from eyelet replacement or reel repairs to new line.
Many veterans live on a fixed income, and aren’t able to purchase their own fishing gear. But in the long run, Vincent hopes the project will help put more of those who served on the path to become self-sustaining.
“It’s great when people volunteer to take us fishing. You can eat for a couple days off that,” he said. “But if you have the equipment, which we can’t afford to buy, we can go catch our own meals and we can eat for a lot longer.”
Erickson estimates that so far, he’s given away about 100 fishing poles to veterans in need, and based on the response he’s gotten, his efforts seem to be paying off. While the food pantry provides free meals, its supply isn’t unlimited.
Vincent said he’s happy to be a part of the project and noted that fishing can be good therapy for disabled veterans like himself.
“I just want to help guys that are like me, to be able to get out of their homes, get off their couches, and have a nice, relaxing day and put some food in their stomachs,” he said. “I don’t do well in social situations, and fishing isn’t a social thing. It allows me to get out of the house, to get out of my own head, which is good for me.”
And the therapeutic exercise of fixing up old rods isn’t the only benefit that Erickson sees.
“I always get a lot of thank-yous” he said. “That makes it worthwhile.”
To donate used fishing poles or materials to the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry, call (406) 756-7304.