Fishing reels trip in a man’s dream

Sixteen Stonegate Assisted Living residents with the Port Sanilac Marina crew enjoyed a day on the waters of Lake Huron last month. Here, Captain Chester Kolaskas waves as Kate Myers, Stonegate’s director of life enrichment, smiles. (Photo by Casey Johnson)

Having lived with multiple sclerosis for more than two decades, Tom Grabitz never thought he’d ever be on a boat again, let alone fishing on the open waters of Lake Huron.

Grabitz, who uses a wheelchair, is a resident of Stonegate Village Assisted Living & Memory Care, Sandusky, where dreams – no matter how impossible – can come true.

On August 16, Grabitz and 15 other Stonegate residents boarded the charter boat Miss Port Sanilac from Port Sanilac with the help of a specially constructed ramp and enthusiastic captain and crew.

And it all started with a conversation about unfinished dreams.

“Is there anything you still wish you could do?” Kate Myers, Stonegate’s director of life enrichment, asked Grabitz this summer.

When Grabitz told her his dream was to get back in the water fishing, Myers said her first thought was, “I’m going to make it happen for him.”

“I personally like Tom, we are kindred spirits,” Myers said, and immediately began making phone calls and sending emails.

Tom Grabitz and Captain Chester Kolaskas pose for a photo before departing.  (Photo by Casey Johnson)

Tom Grabitz and Captain Chester Kolaskas pose for a photo before departing. (Photo by Casey Johnson)

One of those emails was addressed to Chester Kolaskas, owner of the Port Sanilac Marina and Miss Port Sanilac.

“(Chester) could have responded, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not equipped,'” Myers said. But when they came face to face, she said, the captain “looked at me with a sharp look and said, ‘We’ll find a way to make it happen’.”

Their initial determination led to collaboration from the entire marina crew and other community businesses, such as Uri’s Landing Restaurant in Port Sanilac, where Chef Rick Kozlowski heard about the adventure and volunteered to donate lunches.

“Anything we can do to be part of the community,” Kozlowski told The News. “Anytime a company can partner with the community, it’s a win-win.”

The biggest challenge, Myers and Kolasch realized, was getting residents in wheelchairs and people with limited mobility to the boat. “I thought, let’s get the whole company involved,” Kolaszcz said, asking the marina’s staff for help.

Tom Grabbitz fulfills his dream of fishing again.  (Photo courtesy of Stonegate Assisted Living)

Tom Grabbitz fulfills his dream of fishing again. (Photo courtesy of Stonegate Assisted Living)

Marina technicians Austin Epps and Steve Bodett were instrumental in the engineering of the ramp, which required constructing, welding and temporarily mounting a wooden ramp on a fixed boat winch, so it could be raised and lowered.

“It wasn’t really complicated,” Epps said, though minds less skilled in mechanics are likely to disagree.

Epps said the project took about a week to complete, and required precise measurements and safety standards.

Another hurdle to overcome was mooring the boat where the fixed boat winch was located. Jillian Sheldon, assistant marina manager, said the Miss Port Sanilac had to be moved from its permanent mooring and docked at the stern, which is a tricky maneuver with that craft.

But it was worth it.

“We got a lot out of this,” Sheldon said. “Looking at how relaxed all the residents seemed, you could tell that (Myers) really does care about them.”

Everyone agreed that the highlight was “Seeing Tom’s Fish”.

Although the “big guy” escaped, Grabetz said he would volunteer to take another flight at any time.

“I like the water at first,” said Grabitz. “You can look at the water and be amazed. Lose track of your worries.”

Grabitz does not allow his diagnosis to suppress his adventurous spirit, or prevent him from enjoying the simple beauty of life.

“If you can’t smile, and you can’t laugh, that’s a problem,” Grabitz said. “If you have the right attitude, that’s half the battle.”

Myers said she hopes the trip will open doors for other people with disabilities.

“When our bus stopped and I saw that (the ramp) was connected to an elevator, I was dumbfounded,” she said. “It was a dream come true. …It’s like paving the way for those with a disability, who have given up on their dreams of getting back to doing something they love.[Kulash]could have stopped and he didn’t. It’s laying the foundation for something really special in our community.”

Kolaszcz said he’s open to the possibility of similar charters being made available in the future, though employees will need advance notice.

“In the future, we will have an idea of ​​how this works,” he added.

And in the future, Grabitz may be in that boat.

“If you’re looking for volunteers, I’m always willing to go fishing,” he said, raising his hand.

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