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Spokane man angling to build sustainable futures

Physical therapist David Adams, in his office, stands near a bulletin board earlier this month with photos and articles about sustainable fish ponds in Mali, Nigeria, Armenia and the Philippines. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
Physical therapist David Adams, in his office, stands near a bulletin board earlier this month with photos and articles about sustainable fish ponds in Mali, Nigeria, Armenia and the Philippines. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

Frustration led to passion for helping poor countries

According to an old Chinese proverb, if you give someone a fish, you’ll feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime. But South Side resident David Adams has a slightly different perspective. He wants to help impoverished communities develop fish farms, so they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

During the late 1960s, Adams volunteered with the Peace Corps, working with offshore fishermen in Jamaica. Though he helped the fishermen increase their hauls by convincing a local fiberglass boat maker to make higher-quality fishing vessels instead of ski boats, Adams was frustrated with the lack of available resources. And he longed for an opportunity to help change life for residents in the developing country in a sustainable way.

“I knew offshore fishing was not sustainable,” he said. “I wanted to do fish farming. I saw a need. They’d overfish their fishing grounds and be back where they were.”

Over the next 34 years that desire lay dormant, but was always in the back of his mind, said Adams, a local physical therapist. Then, in 2002, Adams found an opportunity to revive his passion to feed developing communities through sustainable fish farming.

He’d heard about the Peace Corps Partnership program, which links donors to community-initiated projects in areas where a Peace Corps volunteer is serving. He looked at the Web site to see what projects were available and was thrilled to see fish ponds.

“When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, no such help was available and I was terribly frustrated by the lack of just a few dollars. In some areas a buck or two can do a lot,” Adams said.

Now Adams is retiring and excited to donate even more time and energy to fish pond projects.

“My gig is fish ponds,” he said, flipping through a binder full of information about the almost 20 ponds he has helped finance in the last eight years.

Adams said it is especially gratifying that every penny donated goes toward project costs, with no money spent on overhead.

The setup costs, he said, run anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. He has pictures of ponds all over the world, including Nicaragua, the Philippines, Nigeria and Ecuador. The binder is thick with correspondence about the projects, including many thank you letters. He pulled out a handmade Christmas card from Armenia that a volunteer sent him. It was hand-stitched with small snowflakes and Christmas trees, a time-intensive thank you for his support.

“Fish ponds have been a lifelong passion,” said Adams, explaining that many developing countries have a shortage of protein. “They don’t have access to fresh fish or it is expensive. If they can have access to fish in a yard they can use and sell it.”

This creates not only a food source, he said, but an income source as well. For many of the ponds, he said the community can harvest three crops of fish each year while maintaining enough fish to repopulate the pond.

In order to finance more ponds, Adams also started loaning money to emerging communities through a micro-lending organization named Kiva, which connects lenders to entrepreneurs in impoverished areas. “Regular loans are not available to developing countries,” Adams explained. When each loan is repaid, he then loans the money to another entrepreneur to help develop another fish pond.

“I don’t know why it gives me passion,” he said with a shrug. “I think about fish ponds a lot. But I’ve never grown a fish or seen a pond myself.”

Adams expects that to change with his recent retirement this February. Now he said he plans to use much of his extra time on his fish-pond passion, starting with a spring visit to a fish pond and vegetable garden project in Maui. There he hopes to learn all he can so he can share that in more developing communities. And, of course, he hopes to visit ponds he’s helped finance.

Instead of a leisurely retirement, Adams said he wants to focus on fish ponds as a volunteer retirement job. “I want to help and travel, rather than be a tourist. I’m an ordinary guy that wants to do something worthwhile.”

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