Wisps of smoke drifted through the morning air and the pleasing smell of the crackling campfire tickled your nose. As I approached the campsite, kids could be heard laughing. What could be more comforting to our own senses. For the 11th year something special took place on a large Cass County farm where the landowner graciously donated his parcel for what is appropriately titled Freedom Hunt. It is at this gathering where children with special needs become free from their handicaps and free to take in the joys of hunting and fishing for the weekend. Freedom Hunt is the brainchild of avid sportsman Steve Griffey, who after years of taking to the woods wanted to help pass the tradition on to those who may never have an opportunity. And who better than handicapped children? The youngsters taking part in the event endure a number of ailments. It’s heart wrenching to hear that a few may not see their adult years. Some have minor disabilities while others wear feeding tubes, tracheotomies or ride in wheelchairs. They didn’t ask for it nor do they deserve it yet every one greets each sunrise with unbridled enthusiasm. This year 17 young hunters registered for the three-day event, where everything is provided including their own personal guide. Their bedrooms are tents, the bathroom an outhouse and their shower, well, there is no shower. At night the only sounds heard were insects, owls and occasional fish jumping in the adjoining river. Naomi Staggs (L. to R.) watches s guide Cara Thomas helps Londyn Baker look for squirrels.
Photo by author Of course it’s obvious the event coincides with Indiana’s youth only deer hunting season. This year’s participants also had the chance to hunt squirrels and upland game birds through a “put-and-take” situation. In an effort to make it a true, all-inclusive cast-and-blast opportunity, fishing was available on stocked farm ponds and the Eel River, which flowed adjacent to the camp site. All fish and game were delightfully consumed, much of it cooked over the large campfire. In an activity once dominated by men and young boys, the tides are changing. Each year the number of young girls taking part climbs and this year even saw two females who volunteered their time and expertise serving as guides. Kelly Schlosser, Logansport, has always loved the outdoors and children so volunteering for this year’s hunt seemed like a perfect fit. She was paired with 14 year old Eliana Miller, who constantly showed her exuberance of being outside and hunting with her new friend. “See, it’s that excitement that makes this all worthwhile’” said Schlosser, as Eliana reached to kiss her on the cheek as her own personal way of showing her appreciation. Another female offering her time as a guide was die-hard bowhunter Cara Thomas, who gladly took two hunters, Naomi Sears, age 11 and eight year old Londyn Baker. Thomas, who lives in Peru, got involved through Griffey. “I was in a diner last year and saw two girls in there wearing camo and face paint so I had to go talk to them,” said Griffey with a laugh. “We had just finished a morning bowhunt and stopped to have breakfast,” said Thomas. “So after learning of this special hunt for handicap kids I teared up and knew I had to get involved.” It became even more personal since Thomas has a handicapped son of her own. “This so much parallels my favorite hobby and my life,” she continued. “I can’t thank Steve enough for getting me involved.” Although both Thomas and Schlosser are relatively new volunteers, Kokomo’s Todd Cripe represents the other end of the compass. He has served as a guide for the past nine years, often times accompanying children with the most severe handicaps. This year he was paired with Jacob Neff who suffers from Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. “Kids with these types of disabilities may never get a chance at anything like this,” he said pointing over the campsite as kids and other volunteers enjoyed a hearty lunch. “What can warm your heart more than this,” he added sincerely. But Cripe was quick to defer compliments to others like Terry Collins of Walton. “My hunter has very little mobility but refuses to use a wheelchair,” he explained. “It was evident we needed something to transport him back to the blind and I wasn’t sure what to do.” After one phone call to Collins he eagerly donated a golf cart for their use. It is a sad commentary in today’s world. Not a day goes by without some type of wrongdoing relayed through every news outlet. But programs like this are proof, beyond a doubt; there are still many caring individuals who believe in helping others. So what draws a kinship of hardy souls like those who not only choose, but want to help children who they may have never met before? Maybe its heartfelt compassion, maybe it’s to pass on the tradition of consumptive outdoor opportunities, and maybe they do it just because they want to or for some other personal reason. Regardless, they all do it because of what’s inside. And that’s exactly how they like it.