Lake Prosecutor casts a line with youth for Let’s Talk program

The bluegill were biting Thursday for the approximately 10 boys fishing in the pond in front of Living Hope Church in Merrillville.

For most of the Pierce Middle School students casting their lines in the pond and waiting for a bite, it was the first time they had put a pole in the water.

“I like it,” Davion Johnson, 15, said.

Johnson got off to a bit of a slow start as his friends were hooking small bluegill one after the other with the assistance of Lake County Prosecutor Bernie Carter and members of his staff. Once Johnson got the hang of it, he, too, began plucking fish out of the pond.

The youth, all boys from Pierce Middle School, are participants in the Let’s Talk program with Carter, who has been meeting with the students twice a month throughout the school year to have an opportunity to talk one-on-one about whatever may be on their mind.

Johnson thought the fishing excursion, which included a pizza party hosted by the church and the Rev. Rick Cochran, was a fun way to end the Let’s Talk program for the school year. He said Carter was “cool” and fun to talk to.

“We got to talk about personal things,” he said.

Cheryl Smith, family and community engagement specialist for Pierce Middle School in Merrillville, said the Let’s Talk program has helped make a difference in how the participants communicate with their peers, their teachers and their families. It serves as one of several mentorship programs for the school’s youth.

“It’s an excellent program,” Smith said.

“They’ve opened up tremendously,” Smith said. The opportunity to talk has helped them develop closer relationships and be more expressive, she said, and it also creates an atmosphere where the youth know if they need anything, there is someone safe they can talk to.

Carter was enjoying the encounter with the youth. A fisherman himself, he supplied the poles from his personal supply. He said Let’s Talk afforded him the opportunity to meet with the teens, talk about their lives and how to better themselves.

He said part of the message is teaching them that no matter what happens, every day they can do a little better.

“I tell them how I try and get better and do better every day,” Carter said.

He patiently baited the hooks with worms, explaining to the boys how to properly thread the worm on the hook and why. With almost each fish they caught, they proudly showed off their success to Carter and his team, who helped release the fish back in the pond.

“Most of these kids have never fished. To see the smile on their faces (is why we) do things like this,” Carter said.

The group was all smiles as they started a friendly competition tallying their catches. The teens moved about the pond and by the end of the session, some were baiting their own hooks and removing their catches.

Hogir Saeed, IT director for the prosecutor’s office, was part of the team Thursday fishing with the youth. He said when Carter approached him with the opportunity to help participants celebrate finishing the program with a fishing trip, he was all over the opportunity.

“I fish a lot. I target salmon and steelhead,” he said.

Saeed said there is no better way than fishing to help youth learn patience. It’s an opportunity to talk in a relaxed environment and network.

Smith said she was impressed with how the group of young men behaved. She often finds them horsing around and being loud.

“Everyone is so calm today,” she said.

Merrillville School Board member DeLena Thomas, who is also president of the Pierce PTO, stopped by to help the youth celebrate. She lauded Let’s Talk and its effects on the students. Thomas said she has seen how rowdy the students can be.

“I want to see it continue to grow. It warms my heart. This helps them strengthen relationships outside of the regular club experience,” Thomas said.

Cochran, the church’s pastor, said he was thrilled to be able to be a part of the program and to assist Carter.

“For us, it’s a really special blessing to be able to see (the pond) utilized,” Cochran said.