Special hunt for special kids

Above- Shanin Walker, center, took part in this year's Freedom Hunt because he wanted to do something just like everyone else. He is pictured with his grandfather James Walker (L.) and guide Jason Barbknecht. All photos by John Martino
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Bill Foust shares a lighthearted moment with Jacob Badger during the 10th annual Freedom Hunt for special needs children.

Indiana’s youth-only special deer hunting season took place last weekend among much fanfare. It was met with giddy excitement from the children who took part as well as the adults who would accompany them. But few things are as special as the event that unfolds in a rural section of Cass County.

“I hope to take a deer this afternoon,” said Jacob Badger, as he navigated his wheelchair around the picturesque camp site. “We are going to give it our all,” reassured his guide Bill Foust of Kokomo.

Both Badger and Foust were just one of many taking part in this year’s 10th annual Freedom Hunt. This event offers children with special needs the opportunity to enjoy a weekend long tradition of camping and hunting our state’s premier big game animal. While in the field each child is joined by their own personal guide.

The group of children, 16 in all, along with their families and a host of volunteers spent the better part of three days camping and hunting on a beautiful Cass County farm located on the scenic banks of the Eel River. The landowner graciously donates use of his sprawling property for this unique event.

Upon arrival, the young participants received an entire repertoire of hunting equipment which becomes theirs to keep. Food and camping accommodations were also provided. Nate Hardin, owner of Half-Breed knives also gave these children their own custom made hunting knife.

To the deer hunter, anyplace that harbors whitetails is considered a hallowed piece of ground. Put children with special needs on it for a youth-only deer hunting weekend and it becomes even more sacred.

akenna Leicht, age 11, collected this trophy 10 point buck, sporting a field dressed weight of 190 pounds, during last weekend's youth only deer hunting season.

Freedom Hunt is the brainchild of area businessman Steve Griffey. His passion for hunting would not be greater than his passion for passing on the tradition to youth, especially those youth who may never have an opportunity.

The kids who took part in this year’s event truly are special. They found themselves dealing with challenges like cerebral palsy, various birth defects, autism, leukemia and paralysis. They didn’t ask for it and they sure didn’t deserve it. Yet, they hold positive attitudes and welcome each day with excitement and happiness. If only some adults could learn that!

Shanin Walker, age 14, was another young hunter taking part in this year’s hunt. He was joined by his grandfather James Walker. “I have taken every one of my grandkids to Hunter Ed classes and take them hunting,” James said. Then one day Shanin said he wanted to take the course, so I took him too.” For James, few things cement a bond between him and his grandchildren like spending time together outdoors. “And I wasn’t going to deny that to Shanin or me,” he added

Shanin was born with a serious birth defect that left him unable to use his muscles. He breathes through a tracheotomy. “The doctors advised his mother to terminate the pregnancy when the full details of the birth defects became known,” James explained. “She just couldn’t do it and I thank God she didn’t”

Confined to a wheelchair operated by a single joystick Shanin was thankful to be taking part in this year’s Freedom Hunt. His wheelchair was equipped with a “sip and puff” firearms system where the gun is mounted to the chair with a special apparatus. Aiming the gun is done by remote control. Once on target the user simply inhales or puffs into a tube held in the mouth to fire the gun.

“I have always wanted to hunt,” added Shanin, his constant smiling face slumped to the side. “Plus it’s something that I can do just like everyone else.”

As the weekend long Freedom Hunt drew to a close, several of us talked about the positive merits of giving these special kids a chance to experience something they may not otherwise. “I am honored to be a part of this and help these children,” said Foust, who has served many years as a guide. “I want to do everything I can to get children involved in hunting, regardless of disabilities,” added Jason Barbknecht, who also served as a guide.

But these same children gave the numerous volunteers and guides an experience we will not soon forget. As abled bodied adults we sometimes become caught up in the daily stress of our own lives and find it easy to complain. But these children are forced to deal with the utmost in challenges yet they remain positive, upbeat and look at the joy in every single day. Yes, these kids taught us something as well.

Youth Deer Hunting Results

As a father, one of my goals is to provide the best I can for my children. Not necessarily the best house, best clothes or best toys, but the best lifelong memories outdoors. Children’s memories help shape their personality and who they become. As we ourselves age, we detail the events of our own lives through memories.

Last weekend many young hunters got a jump start on this year’s deer hunting season. For two days children under the age of 18 got an opportunity to hunt our state’s premier big game animal under the watchful eye of an accompanying adult. Congratulations are in order for every child who took to the woods, regardless if they encountered success, because lifelong memories were made. But any youngster who does successfully take a deer is a noteworthy outdoor accomplishment, one worthy of recognition. Here are the names I have received of children who saw success during Indiana’s special youth only deer hunting season.

Makenna Leicht – 190 pound, 10-point buck; Pat Bookmiller – 140 pound, eight-point buck; Austin Walker – 120 pound, six-point buck; Conner Sirmon – 70 pound doe; Colton Winberg – 70 pound doe; Alexander Hernandez – 120 pound, four-point buck; Ray Rodkey – 120 pound doe; Andrew Ash – 60 pound doe; Kyle Peters – 110 pound doe; Keegan Doty – 90 pound doe; Kelsey Temme – 145 pound doe.

The Freedom Hunt is funded solely by donations. To learn more, visit www.freedomhunt.com