A Pennsylvania man’s efforts to refurbish fishing equipment and teach kids how to use it has helped him reel in a $50,000 prize as the winner of TODAY’s #SmallActs contest.
The initiative began as a way for Dale Ortmann to share his love of fishing on the Allegheny River with the children of Manorville, some 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, with the hope that the kids would take a break from the Xbox, so to speak — and dive into a tackle box.
“I like to see 'em catch somethin', then bring it in, you know?” he told TODAY. “See the excitement on their face, catchin' their first fish.”
As someone who's fished for about 36 years, he contends catching fish makes for a far more memorable day than any video game. “Get some fresh air, get some experience," he said. "Get this nice fish on. And, you know, [it] makes you happier than ... playin' 'Angry Birds.'"
The project started when he used his own time and money to fix fishing equipment he’d inherited from his wife’s late grandfather, who came up with the idea. "He said, 'You can keep what you can use, and whatever you don't use, just give away to whoever needs 'em,'" Ortmann recalled.
His initiative has become so successful that, on a weekly basis, he’s now repairing as many as five or six poles that friends, family and strangers have donated to the cause.
His wife, Shannon, nominated him for the #SmallActs honor, and told TODAY he’d provided 328 children with repaired fishing rods, reels and tackle since March 2013. “Dale is trying to give them something different to do," she said. "Rather than just wander the streets, they're actually going fishing. And the kids are really responding to it.”
The work is a labor of love, as Shannon is on Supplemental Security Income due to a foot condition and Dale has cancer in one of his eyes. “He makes every extra dollar we can spare — and some we can't — into trying to change kids’ lives,” she wrote in her #SmallActs nomination submission. “He simply tells me, someone has to do it, so, I [will].”
Consider 14-year-old Alex Sobel hooked.
"I like fishing," Alex told TODAY. "It's something to do, keeps everybody outta trouble. And it's a great thing to do with friends."
Makiya Jones, 12, also appreciated the gesture.
"I think it's kind of him to do that," she said. "And it's caring. No one else would do that for us."
TODAY surprised the couple during Wednesday’s show, when a Wells Fargo representative presented the couple with the $50,000 check in a sponsored segment. The contest encouraged TODAY fans to share their stories about making a big impact through small acts of generosity. (Wells Fargo is a sponsor of TODAY's #SmallActs campaign.)
Before Dale ever knew he’d be rewarded for his #SmallActs, Shannon made sure that her nomination form included her rave review of her husband and his contributions to the community.
“My husband,” she wrote, “is my hero.”
Follow TODAY.com writer Chris Serico on Twitter.