COVENTRY — John Vanluevan Graichen was four years old the first time he went fishing — he used a cane pole to teach himself during one of his family’s regular trips to Connecticut.
That was 50 years ago, but Graichen remembers it clearly.
“While my dad was playing horseshoes, I would either be swimming, or I’d be fishing,” he said Monday, recalling his earliest forays into what would become a lifelong pastime.
Fishing has helped Graichen cope with a lot over the years. And through his “Keeping Kids Fishing” initiative, he’s made it his mission to ensure that all kids who want to experience the hobby he holds so dearly have the equipment they’ll need to do so.
A resident of Coventry, Graichen began the initiative two years ago after meeting three young brothers while fishing at a local pond. Graichen had brought along three fishing poles to rotate to avoid changing his lures. Still, when one of the boys asked to use a pole, he was happy to oblige.
“And his brother asked if he could use the other pole, so, of course, I said yes,” Graichen added.
Then, worried the third brother might feel left out, Graichen offered up the pole he’d been using.
“I’m thinking, I have a couple extra poles at the house, so I told them to come back tomorrow and I’d try to get them fishing poles,” he continued.
By the next day, having posted a request on Facebook seeking donations of spare fishing supplies, Graichen had come up with more than enough gear to accommodate the brothers he’d just met.
“I gave them to the kids and they were so happy, it just took off from there,” he said. “It gave me such a good feeling to see them happy.”
Graichen to date has donated more than 230 fishing poles with tackle boxes filled with gear, all of which either he purchased himself or was donated to him for the cause.
“What I do, I go on social media to the Coventry and West Warwick groups and ask if there’s anybody whose kids could benefit from a fishing pole,” he said, “then I’ll get the pole and the box together and send it to them.”
Graichen said his goal is to instill in kids a similar love of fishing to the one he developed five decades ago. He also hopes, though, to inspire healthy habits and to encourage kids to get outdoors.
“And hopefully they’ll get hooked, and they’ll be spending their money on fishing gear instead of on drugs,” he continued.
For Graichen, fishing has grown into much more than a hobby. And while hundreds of aspiring anglers have benefited from “Keeping Kids Fishing,” Graichen, himself, has also gained quite a bit from the initiative.
Originally from Warwick, Graichen for a long was living pretty well. He worked for 22 years on a golf course; he owned a home. But after contracting a case of Lyme disease that caused severe neurological issues and left him disabled, he ended up losing both his job and his house.
“It took me about two years to recover enough to be physically healthy,” he said, adding that he still suffers from related anxiety. “Physically, I’m OK now. It was a long battle, but doing this really, really helps my mentality.”
The shore of Tiogue Lake was filled Saturday afternoon with young Coventry and West Warwick residents, eager to hone their fishing skills. Graichen had organized the event to offer free fishing lessons to those interested.
Graichen, who’s currently in the process of applying for nonprofit status for “Keeping Kids Fishing,” said he plans to host similar events a couple times per year as part of the initiative.
“I gave a pole to a kid with autism, and it was as if I handed this kid the world on a stick,” Graichen said, recounting Saturday’s event. “Just to see his face — I’m going to do this for as long as I can.”
In his efforts to reach as many interested young people as he can, Graichen is always accepting donations of fishing poles and gear. He can be reached via his Facebook group, “Keeping kids fishing,” or by messaging his personal Facebook page.