Jovan McNeill shares transformative outdoor experiences with low-income and single-parent families.
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
TAMPA BAY – Jovan McNeill’s personal experience with nature and family is directly responsible for the creation of Cloud Nine Outdoors, Inc. The founder and executive director speaks passionately of how spending time in nature while fishing with his teenage mother as a child transformed his world.
Born and raised in Tampa to a 16-year-old mother, McNeill was raised with his grandmother and his mom. “My great-grandmother introduced us to fishing when I was about three, four. Growing up, fishing became our way to bond.”
McNeill said it’s a tradition that’s continued. Even when he became a rebellious teen, time spent fishing was a way that he and his mother could spend time together.
Strongly impacted by the transformative nature of that time spent with his mom fishing, McNeill believed that there were hundreds of kids from low-income homes who might watch TV shows about fishing and hunting and want to experience it themselves but couldn’t because of their family’s structure and or finances.
It sparked an idea. “I wanted to provide a program to give parents the skills, opportunities and tools to go fishing,” said McNeill.
He noted that the affordability of the sport (poles can be purchased for under $10 at Walmart, and bait costs less than that) makes it a perfect option for getting out in nature, spending time with family and providing healthy meals.
Mentorship has always been another important part of the Cloud Nine Outdoors’ program. Growing up in the projects without a father around, McNeill related to the hardships and struggles that many of the youth he interacted with were experiencing.
Working with youth, he said, “We saw a need for more mentorship in the schools, with grades and behavior issues that kids deal with.” Because of his background, youth have found it easier to relate to him. “It’s very hard for these kids to say, ‘Hey, you don’t know what I’m going through,'” offered McNeill.
Personal experience with what it means to “make it out,” is the reason, said McNeill that “I made this program to help others make it out – to push them to be better in life, and in their education.”
He’s especially proud that all the program’s seniors have graduated from high school, and all have gone on to college or trade school, at Pinellas Technical College and Hillsborough Community College.
Today, Cloud Nine Outdoors, Inc. is a fully insured 501(c)3, year-round nonprofit impacting hundreds of youth annually and offering a variety of ways that youth and single-parent families can engage in nature. The organization also teaches archery, holds wild hog hunts (that provide families with up to 60 lbs. of meat) and offers family camping opportunities.
Its mission is to provide a year-round program that helps inner-city youth with mentorships in school and access to outdoor activities to keep them out of trouble, off the streets and to see them advance in life has reached children through partnerships with Pinellas County Schools (including Melrose and Academy Prep), the Boys and Girls Club, and has attracted a variety of partners throughout Tampa Bay.
Beginning in October, the organization will be offering a series of two-day fishing camps to inner-city youth. “We’re the first to do anything of this kind, of this magnitude,” shared McNeill.
Each free camp will be open to 50 youth. The first day of camp will cover the ecosystem, how to cast different fishing poles, which baits and other important aspects of fishing.
“The second day we’ll go out to Hubbard’s Marina in John’s Pass for a five-hour offshore trip in which the kids get to fish for five hours and catch fresh fish. We’ll clean it for them, and they can take it home, cook it, and feed the family good fresh dinner right out of the ocean.”
A myriad of studies reveal the positive impacts of spending time in nature on children and adults, including decreased anxiety, less hyperactivity and fewer acts of aggression. Conversely, research also abounds on the impact of a lack of exercise and out-of-control use of electronics – whether kids are playing video games or parents are forced to use the television as a babysitter.
Yet, any urban parent or caregiver, whether in a single-family home or one where there is more than one caregiver, can attest to the challenge of trying to carve out time to spend in nature. Even in Florida, recent studies show that most people interviewed said they spend little time outdoors.
The first Youth Two Day Fishing Camp is set for Oct. 12 and 13. Interested parents should email Info@CloudNineOutdoors.org or call Jovan McNeill at 813-943-6646 for more information on participating in the upcoming two-day fishing camps and other programs.
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