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Ministry opens Lake Erie to passengers with special needs

Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News
Dan Wilson, left; his grandson Joel Wilson, center; and son Dan Wilson, right, of Lake Fishing Ministries, provide fishing and boating experiences to people with special needs.

ERIE (AP) — Rob Wilson virtually grew up on Lake Erie.

He was born in Erie and comes from a family of anglers dating to 1908. He learned to fish and boat at an early age before pursuing a religious career and becoming pastor for Zion United Methodist Church in Sarver, southeast of Butler.

Wilson, 49, combined his nautical passion and his drive to help others to create At The Lake Ministries, which offers boating and fishing excursions out of Erie for people with special needs and disabilities.

“We want these individuals to know that they’re welcomed, they’re loved and they’re valued and accepted here,” said Wilson, who travels from to Erie to put on the trips. “It’s been truly a humbling experience to be able to do this.”

The ministry offers day trips for groups with similar disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, physical and developmental needs and emotional disabilities. Wilson and his father, Dan Wilson, began the trips in late 2018.

“The trip always looks different. We may have a group of autistic individuals and maybe that day they just like the boat ride better and aren’t that into fishing,” Rob Wilson said. “Or, for example, we may have a group of disabled veterans who really want to fish and be hardcore, and we cater to that want and we fish.”

The idea sprouted in August 2016 when Rob Wilson had a conversation with his friend and member of his congregation, Tim Saxman, from Butler, who has two sons who have special needs.

“It was a day that I just felt tired,” said Saxman, an assistant manager at a Habor Freight Tools. “He’d asked me what the boys like doing and I told him they like the water and being around the water. He said ‘OK, let me get back to you,’ and I was thinking he was arranging something for our families to go out on a boat together or something.”

Rob Wilson was thinking bigger. He began researching the idea of starting the ministry and purchasing a vessel to operate out of the Port of Erie.

That’s when he found the JoAnn-M, commissioned by the Munch family in Erie. He contacted the boat’s owner, Ron Zielinski.

“It didn’t have a for-sale sign up anymore so I wasn’t even sure it was in the wheelhouse,” Wilson said. “But when I called and explained to him what I wanted to do, he instantly came down $30,000 in the price, just like that. He was so thrilled about this.”

He secured funding from the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to buy it and began transforming it into a passenger vessel. He knew he would need it to be handicapped accessible and spacious for the ministry’s purposes. Dan Wilson began directing the makeover.

“This vessel is a testament to so many people. I get emotional,” Rob Wilson said. “The number of people from Pittsburgh and up here that offered their services. Professional welders spent hours upon hours here, a professional electrician that totally rewired the boat, a professional painter. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars of gifts.”

The hull was painted by hand. Sherwin-Williams in Pittsburgh donated around $3,000 of paint. Workers removed some 2,000 pounds of steel during its repurposing. Eagle Scouts installed benches and seats inside and Cabela’s in West Virginia donated tackle boxes, fishing poles and more equipment. The Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority permits the ministry to dock and pick people up at the docks where the Water Taxi operates and at the Perry Yacht Club.

“It was affirmation after affirmation that this was meant to be and people supported us,” Rob Wilson said.

The boat was originally built in 1979, the last commercial fishing vessel built by Paasch Marine Services and its 200th hull. The vessel is 53 feet long, 18 feet wide and weighs around 29 tons. The boat is U.S. Coast Guard-inspected and has a bathroom aboard. It also offers a wheelchair-friendly ramping system that allows safe boarding, headphones for noise and weighted blankets.

They’ve served around 52 passengers since its launch, Rob Wilson said. Tim Saxman’s sons, Timmy 21, and Tommy, 17, have been out on the boat twice.

“Tommy is relaxed and it’s the most focused I’ve ever seen him,” Tim Saxman said. “Timmy would just as soon have his legs and hands sticking out the side of the boat and let them splash in the water.”

The biggest reward for Rob Wilson is seeing his passengers transform on the water.

“One gentleman, he was a disabled veteran and in a wheelchair, when he came aboard, he just completely lit up. He sat up straight. He just looked out over the water. I came to find out that he’d served in the U.S. Navy and this was his element,” he said. “He felt like he was at home again.”

The ministry offers two weekly trips and scheduled private charters for families or other groups. There is space aboard for 10 to 12 passengers with special needs plus their support people. Trips typically last between 3 hours and 4 hours but are sometimes shorter.

“The biggest thing we want to emphasize is that we are flexible and we cater to the specific needs of a specific group,” Rob Wilson said.

The cost of a trip is $50 per person. Reservations can be made at www.atthelakeministries.org or by calling Rob Wilson at 657-4024.

“That being said, we never want cost to be preventative and we will work with a family or group if cost is an issue,” he said. “In the end, this isn’t about the fishing. It’s about showing these people and giving these people a genuine experience.”

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