By John Martino
On almost any given day, Jim Rogers’ Cass County farm is a tranquil setting with rolling crop land, green pastures and sprawling woods bordering the gently flowing waters of the Eel River. But for one weekend a year it becomes a hub of activity, a place where friendships and memories are made transgressing lifetimes.
For the seventh year in a row, Rogers graciously donated his land for the increasingly popular Freedom Hunt.
“When I was first approached, I had liability concerns,” Rogers explained. “But after thinking it over, I realized I would rather see these kids have fun more than anything. I owe it to Steve Griffey.”
Griffey, brainchild of the event, has created an opportunity for children with life-altering disabilities to take advantage of Indiana’s special youth deer hunting weekend. Because of the growing list of responsibilities for this one-of-a-kind opportunity, several years back he enlisted the help of Logansport attorney Brad Rozzi, who now serves as the hunt’s coordinator.
“I can’t thank Steve enough for getting me involved,” Rozzi said appreciatively.
Through months of planning, both men put together a unique event which provides much more than the opportunity to take children deer hunting. Freedom Hunt takes in the entire weekend. It’s a time for camping, outdoor activities, fishing and of course, hunting our state’s most popular big-game animal.
Sleeping quarters were provided by the Indiana National Guard where days earlier they erected several large army style canvas tents, each containing rows of folding cots. Two other tents served as cooking and dining quarters.
Travis Clemans was one who helped set up the tents. He then decided to spend the entire weekend at the hunt. Clemans, a former Marine, served two tours in Iraq before joining the National Guard.
“When I realized exactly what was going on, I wanted to stay and help,” he explained. “I have seen a lot of things in my life, both good and bad, but this just gives me goose bumps.”
It’s easy to witness the magic that takes place on that rural farm. This year, the hunt hosted 17 young hunters with disabilities, running the gamut from brain injuries, leukemia and ADHD to other life-changing ailments. They sure didn’t ask for it and sure don’t deserve it. Yet these kids welcome each day with a zest for life that is infectious. If only more adults could be so positive.
The Freedom Hunt literally takes an army of volunteers. The soul of the event are those who cook, clean, set up, organize and then tear everything down, leaving the land as it was the week before. But the heartbeat lies with the guides who spend several days with the kids.
They are attorneys, police officers, construction workers and businessmen. It seems those with the least amount of time are usually the ones who give the most. They put their own busy schedules on hold to help these special kids.
The guides met their young hunter weeks before the hunt actually began. Not only do they become acquainted with the child and their parents, they go over safety rules before overseeing them on the shooting range practicing with the equipment they will be using.
“This is by far my favorite thing to do all year,” guide Rob Davis of Kokomo said as he returned to camp with his young hunter, Quinton Doty. The pair saw success with Doty taking a plump doe on opening morning.
“I was shaking so badly but Rob helped me get the gun up and calmed me down,” Doty said appreciatively, while patting his guide on the arm.
Although this was the first year for guide Rocky Sears, also from Kokomo, there is little doubt he will be back.
“I just can’t believe how rewarding this is,” he said, while looking over the camp during lunch. “I would much rather see these kids have success than myself.”
Another Kokomo resident, Tom Williams, who served as a conservation officer for 32 years before retiring, is now in his third year as a guide.
“This is my way of giving back,” he said in his familiar drawn-out, deep voice. “And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Tom Hewitt, a DNR employee in his 32nd year as a wildlife biologist, also served as a guide.
“I have been fortunate to have taken many game animals throughout my life,” he mentioned, while a group of us talked about the weekend events. “But nothing is better for me than helping a child who may not have the same opportunities as other children.”
While taking a few moments to savor the sweet smell of the camp fire, which burned continuously, it was no surprise to see local businessman Glenn Stephens come walking into camp. He has been there since the hunt’s inaugural event in 2006. As far as I’m concerned, he sets the standard in volunteer efforts. If there is any outdoor-oriented event aimed at children, any children, you will likely see Stephens there volunteering his time.
“I would much rather see kids get involved in the outdoors than anything else,” he explained, “and I want to do my part to help that.”
On Sunday afternoon, as the hunt drew to a close, nine of the children ended up collecting deer. The camp bustled with activity as everyone began packing their equipment for the return home. Every child took time to express their sincere appreciation to the people who made the event possible. But in the end, it wasn’t really about who collected deer and who didn’t. It was about great people, doing great things for even greater children!
• John Martino is the Kokomo Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.