Sunset Middle School student Nehemia "Nemo" Segura was so excited about catching his first fish Tuesday, his teacher asked him to count to 10 to help bring him back down to earth.
"Guess what I caught? I caught a fish," the 11-year old said. "I thought it was amazing!"
Nemo was one of more than 60 physically or mentally challenged children and young adults who took part in the Take a Kid Fishing derby held at Hart Park. The annual rainbow trout fishing party has been organized for more than 30 years by the Kiwanis Club of Kern to provide a memorable experience for students, most of whom have never held a fishing rod.
Sunset special education teacher Marie Walker has been bringing her students to the event for about a dozen years. It's become a tradition.
"This gives them a chance to do what everyone else does, to just be a kid, but to do it in a way that can be successful," Walker said. "The students look forward to it every year."
Kern Kiwanis President Cecilia Provensal said it's really a team effort that includes local merchants like New Generation Graphics, which donated the custom T-shirts, and Cope’s Tackle and Rod Shop, which supplied the rods and reels.
"We couldn't do it without (Kern County) Parks and Recreation and state Fish & Wildlife, which donated the fish," said Provensal.
Every student was guaranteed to catch a trout. To accomplish that, organizers set up a fence just offshore at Hart Park Lake, stocked with a slew of rainbow trout. Even with the trout concentrated in a small area, the fish weren't biting as fast as organizers hoped.
When the kids didn't catch a fish, three Parks and Rec. employees wearing hip waders would net a trout and hook it to the end of the student's fishing line.
Sometimes the sudden appearance of a trout coming face-to-face with an inexperienced angler could be a shocking experience for both fish and human.
Eighteen-year-old Adam Pearman, who attends the Kern High School District's ABLE program, didn't want anything to do with his fish once it came out of the water.
But once he settled down, Pearman held the trout and posed for a photo, which will be sent to his family as a souvenir memory.
Each fish was cleaned and placed on ice to send home to the families. Sometimes organizers later receive photos of the fish being cooked or devoured by the happy young fisherman or fisherwoman.
"We take our students on community outings and expose them to life experiences," said Kim Smith, a teacher with ABLE, which stands for Adult-Based Life Experiences and is open to special education students between the ages of 18 and 22.
As the morning continued, cheers would go up each time a youngster caught a fish.
When Jose Pardo hooked his trout, the 18-year-old didn't say a word, but judging by the look on his face, it seemed he wanted to.
"He's totally nonverbal. He has autism," Smith said.
Jesus Miramontes, 21, experienced his first fishing experience through sound and his sense of touch.
"He's blind. This is the first fish he's ever caught," said his ABLE teacher Verna Austin.
The feel of the fish pulling on his line, the wet, slippery, scaled texture of the trout in his hand as he posed for a picture ... these are memories being made, these are rare and exciting experiences being carved out of a world that cannot always be equally experienced by these young, vibrant students.
As Jeremiah Fanning, of Tevis Junior High, posed with his freshly caught trout, the 13-year-old showed off a huge, crooked smile.
He may not have had the words to explain what he was experiencing, but at that moment, that didn't seem to matter.
His face told the whole story.