WHITTINGTON - Kyle Hunter Ridenour has been on both sides of the boat at the annual USSA Rend Lake fishing event.
Last year, he was one of the children suffering from life-threatening illnesses or other disabilities whose wish - a fishing getaway -was granted by the United Special Sportsman Alliance.
Ridenour and his family were treated to a two-night stay at the Rend Lake Resort in Whittington. Professional catfishermen guided their boats - and their fishing techniques - as they took to the lake for a daylong excursion.
This year, Ridenour, a 19-year-old on the autism spectrum, was among those volunteers helping grant the wishes.
"I was in their shoes and I know what it feels like," Ridenour of Dickson, Tenn. said. "I kept all the stuff I got from here (last year). It's a memory - something I can touch to remember the day."
Ridenour, who represents Tennessee on the USSA's junior board, said he enjoyed helping other children have a great experience at the event.
"It helps me, too. It makes me learn, helps my patience and stuff," he said. "It makes my day and makes me a better person."
His mother, Sheryl, said her son has changed since he started participating in USSA events four years ago.
"He couldn't look you in the eye or carry on a conversation," she said. "Now he has confidence in school and in the community. He can stand up to bullies and share the knowledge he has with others."
He and pro catfish angler Denny Halgren imparted their knowledge to Anna resident Samantha Cates, who has spina bifida, a birth defect that left the 15-year-old in a wheelchair.
Cates took her first boat ride Monday and angled successfully, catching three catfish in the morning run.
"It was scary at first but once I got used to it, it was pretty cool," she said.
Cates, her parents, Jeff and Kim, and cousin Hailley Abernathy, said they loved the lake by lunchtime.
"It's wonderful," Kim Cates said. "It gives us a break from every day life."
That break is exactly what USSA founder Brigid O'Donoghue wants for the children and their families, who are often under great stress.
The charitable organization, which serves children all over the country, has granted 5,800 wishes since October 2000 and will grant another 1,000 this year, she said.
Hunts or fishing trips are provided to the children and their families at no charge while guides like the catfishers donate their time and equipment.
Halgren has volunteered his catfish expertise every year since the event started. He said his reward is the smile that crosses a child's face when reeling in a big catch.
"Look at them. See how precious they are," he said.
At the resort, owner John Reilly picks up the tab for rooms, food and other amenities every year, O'Donoghue said.
Eleven children and 10 families from Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana attended this year's event, which started Sunday and ends today.
"This means more to me than I can put into words," O'Donoghue said.
"These children humble my heart. To see the smiles on their faces takes my breath away. If we can give them a break from the pain for just a little bit, then I know we're on the right track."