Turning Tampa Bay kids from iPhones to archery
St. Petersburg, FL (December 2, 2020) – Fishing was women’s work in Jovan McNeill’s family. His great-grandmother taught his mother how to cast her lines and reel in her catches. McNeill’s mother passed the family skill on to her son, taking him to Gandy and Morris Bridges once a month to reconnect outdoors. In the busyness of a single-parent household, that quiet time together was invaluable.
McNeill wanted to share those formative experiences with others, giving kids a chance to put down their phones and bond with their families and nature. In response, he founded Cloud Nine Outdoors (CNO). “Our program is the intersection of mentorship, education and the outdoors,” said McNeill. CNO works with inner-city youth, many of whom live surrounded by the water of Tampa Bay but have never picked up a fishing pole or been on a boat. “It’s hard to put into words the expression on their face when they catch their first fish or choose archery over iPhones.”
To support this work, the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida recently awarded CNO a $4,920 grant for monthly archery and hunting programs aimed at women and minority youth. Each participant will spend two days at a shooting range, and then take their skills into the woods on a wild hog hunt using archery or rifles. Successful hunters will then learn how to process their game.
In addition to exposing children to new experiences, McNeill is creating a generation of outdoor recreation and conservation advocates. CNO’s programs incorporate animal identification, game species anatomy and environmental stewardship. It also gives kids a source of consistency; they stay with CNO leaders throughout the year, year after year. While teaching a love of nature, leaders also impart life skills. Their participants have a 100% graduation rate, and all have gone on to college or trade schools with scholarships from CNO.
Some of the students have even found their career paths because of CNO. Recently McNeill was teaching about hog anatomy while dressing a harvested animal and was blown away by a participant’s knowledge. Realizing the student shared a love of anatomy, he asked if he had considered becoming an EMT. “It hadn’t crossed his mind that it was an option, but now he’s in EMT school,” said McNeill. Another graduate is studying marine biology thanks to his time with CNO. And these students do not disappear after graduation. “We hear from them all the time. They’re constantly coming back and volunteering their time to lead the new participants.”
Funds for the grant came from the Foundation’s Wildlife Foundation of Florida license plate, which contains the image of a deer. Twenty-five dollars from each purchased plate supports protection and management of lands open to public hunting, hunting safety programs and training in archery and other shooting sports.
“Cloud Nine Outdoors perfectly aligns with our mission,” said Foundation President and CEO Andrew Walker. “We are committed to introducing the joys of outdoor recreation to new audiences. We are excited to watch this new partnership flourish.”
McNeill and his mom still find time to fish together, though with her serving on the board they spend more time talking about CNO.
About Cloud Nine Outdoors
Cloud Nine Outdoors’s mission is to provide a program that helps inner-city youth with mentorships in school and access to outdoor activities to keep them out of trouble, off the streets and to see them advance in life.