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Fish fry is labor of love for S.O.N.S of Lake Erie

by LIZ ALLEN, Staff Writer

Chuck Miller is a fix-it guy, whether that involved his 40 years on the job as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairman or his lifelong hobby as a Lake Erie angler.

It’s no surprise, then, that the annual end-of-summer fish fry for Emmaus Soup Kitchen guests came with all the fixings and heaps of goodwill, thanks to Chuck and his cohorts from the S.O.N.S. (Save Our Native Species) of Lake Erie, who sponsor the annual event.

In his 40 years of working as a “heating guy,” Chuck got to know the late Benedictine Sister Augusta Hamel, founder of the Erie Food Bank (now Second Harvest) and namesake of Emmaus' Kids’ Cafe (whose full name is Sister Gus' Kids Cafe). Sister Augusta, in turn, introduced Chuck to Sister Mary Miller, former Director of Emmaus.

“Sister Augusta’s exact words were, ‘Take care of Sister Mary,” Chuck recalled. That suggestion went beyond tending to the HVAC needs of Emmaus Ministries. Taking care of Sister Mary meant taking care of all the people that Sister Mary encountered in her years as director before her death in May.

The idea for a fish fry at the soup kitchen dates to 2010 or 2011, said Chuck, when anglers in Erie’s three sports fishing tournaments would donate fish. “All participants were very generous.”

In 2015, members of the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie began to host the annual fish fry at the soup kitchen. The event attracts as many as 20 volunteers, who work inside to prepare about 150 pounds of walleye, which is deep-fried on the loading dock of the food pantry.

“It’s already skinned and deboned,” Chuck explained. “We take off the brown layer and make sure the blood lines are cut off. We want as much of the white meat on the fish as possible.” The prep work also assures that the walleye doesn’t have a “fishy taste, which is not very good on the palate,” he said.

Fishing for fun and for food is a family tradition for many S.O.N.S. members. Chuck’s grandfather used to be the keeper of the reservoir in Klondike, Maryland, which is where Chuck learned to fish with his father, using a cane pole made by his father.

Going out on their boat provided much-needed respite for his father, who worked a “merciless job” as a crane operator.

Seeing such hard labor as they were growing up has instilled a spirit of mercy in the S.O.N.S volunteers.

The “species” in the S.O.N.S formal name isn’t just referring to fish, Chuck said. “That includes, to us, the human element,” he said. “I worked with Sister Mary for years and years and I always said, if there’s a chance to give back, I will.”

The S.O.N.S. group also gives back by sharing their love of fishing with newcomers of all ages.

Deborah Cole was invited to one of the organization’s fish fries for public officials and community members when she worked in the Treasurer’s Office at Erie City Hall. “I found out you can learn about fishing. I bought a membership, went to a meeting and just kept going. Now I volunteer wherever I can,” she said.

Larry Lipinski, a retired machinist, has introduced his children, grandchildren and great-grandkids to the joys of fishing and has twice been recognized as volunteer of the year for teaching other youngsters, including children from the inner city, to fishing. “When a little boy or girl gets their first fish, they jump up and down and are so happy,” he said. “They want to learn everything. It’s really rewarding for us and for the kids, instead of pushing buttons all the time.”

Deborah and the other members urge anyone who is interested in learning more about fishing to come to a S.O.N.S. meeting. For more information, call 814-453-2270 or e-mail

Photo: Members of the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie gather inside the soup kitchen.


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