In 2005, when retired Navy Capt. Ed Nicholson was a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he noticed a lot of wounded warriors around him. He had been planning to spend his retirement relaxing and doing some recreational fishing, but in the hospital, he had what he calls an “aha” moment: “It just struck me that maybe some of these guys might like to go fishing with me,” he said.
Eight years later, Nicholson, 71, is one of seven recipients of the Purpose Prize, an award for people 60 and older who have started new careers that contribute to the social good. Awarded by the nonprofit group Encore.org, which supports people in “encore careers,” the designation comes with $100,000 each for two winners and $25,000 each for five winners.
Nicholson’s aha moment translated into Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a Maryland-based organization that helps disabled veterans regain physical and emotional equilibrium by teaching them fly fishing. Having started with a few soldiers from Walter Reed, the program has spread to 160 locations in 48 states and has served 4,500 veterans in the past year alone.
Learning fly fishing prepares wounded veterans to overcome other challenges in their daily lives, Nicholson said, noting that many of the participants are amputees or have lost mobility in their limbs.
“It builds confidence in them in daily life,” he said. “A guy will say, ‘You know, if I can tie a line onto my fly rod with one hand, then that makes me realize I can tie my shoelaces and clothe myself with one hand.’ ”
The organization, which has been funded by private and corporate contributions as well as foundations and received one of this year’s $25,000 prizes, also builds close friendships, Nicholson said, noting that volunteers include many former participants as well as older veterans of earlier wars.
David Folkerts, 33, of Frederick, Md., a former participant who now works for the organization, said learning to fish changed his outlook after his left hand was injured by a makeshift bomb in Iraq. “I was so used to being an athlete and being good at everything. I didn’t want to put myself out there and try and fail and confront what I couldn’t do.”
But after he caught his first trout, “I pulled that thing out of the water and thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen in my life,” he said.
“That set me on a path to thinking positively about all the things I can still do.”
The purpose of the eight-year-old prize is “to show that innovation and entrepreneurship in the social sphere is not the exclusive province of young people, but there’s an undiscovered continent of people working on these challenges who are over 60, that were previously considered over the hill,” said Marc Freedman, who is the founder and chief executive of Encore.org. “It’s the opposite of a lifetime achievement award; it’s an investment in what a group of innovators in the second half of life are poised to do next.”
Carol Fennelly, 64, was a longtime social activist and political commentator for WAMU before she started Hope House, a 14-year-old District organization that helps incarcerated men stay in touch with their children through teleconferencing, video-book reading and a jailhouse “camp” that children attend.
The five-day summer camp, currently active in three prisons, allows children to spend time with their fathers without the usual restrictions imposed on visitors. Surveys show that after participating in the programs, children read more, did better in school and had improved relationships with their fathers, Fennelly said.
The program also has had surprising effects on its founder.
After retiring from her earlier activism, “I thought I was finished with changing the world,” she said. “I was really getting ready to do what I’m doing now, and this is really my life’s work.”