October 6, 2013

MARTINO: Freedom Hunt provides lasting memories for all

Cass County farm serves as home to event.


---- — It was last December. Noah Barbknecht was filled with excitement. Fresh off a rabbit hunting trip with his father, Jason, the impressionable 15-year-old was looking forward to visiting his older brother, Chris, who was stationed in New York with the National Guard 109th Air Wing. It was going to be a Christmas family reunion for which they all longed. Little did they know that particular holiday season their lives would change forever.

It was Christmas Eve when the entire family, which included the boys, their father and mother Sandi, traveled to Vermont for a day of snow skiing. To them, it was a true holiday celebration of being together again as a family reunited.

“We are all accomplished skiers so when we hit the slopes, Noah took off,” said Jason.

Roughly an hour had passed when he became curious as to where his youngest son had ventured off.

“I got on a chair lift and started looking around for him,” he explained. That’s when he spotted his son lying motionless on an adjoining slope. Noah had tried to jump a small ditch when he accidentally slammed into the opposite bank.

After reaching the top of the mountain, Jason immediately made his way down the snow covered slope to his son.

“The ski patrol was already there and had him strapped on a backboard and prepped him for the emergency ride to the hospital,” he recalled.

After numerous X-rays and tests, the news was something no parent ever wants to hear. It was early Christmas morning when they learned Noah had a collapsed lung, broken ribs and worse, his spine was completely severed. The young, outgoing boy would never walk again.

Noah received a tracheotomy and was hooked up to a ventilator. Upon regaining consciousness, they could tell he was trying to communicate something to them.

“We handed him a pencil and a pad of paper,” his father said. “At first we couldn’t decipher what he wrote and became concerned he had brain injuries as well. Then Chris looked at it and said, ‘You are not going to believe this.’”

What he wrote shocked them all. On the paper he had written, “Feliz Navidad.”

“We couldn’t believe it and when we looked at him you could tell he was trying to smile,” Jason added, his eyes welling up with tears. “That’s just the type of kid he is.”

The surgeons explained to the family Noah could expect to be in the hospital for up to eight months, due to the seriousness of his injuries.

“But he was out in four,” Jason said thankfully.

Now, barely more than eight months from his accident, the young boy returned to the woods.

“I could never give up hunting,” Noah said emphatically.

So this fall, he made good on his promise.

“It was something we have always done as a family and Noah was determined,” said his father.

So it was just last weekend when the father and son traveled from their home in Fort Wayne to Cass County to take part in the seventh annual Freedom Hunt.

Founded by Steve Griffey, this unique opportunity provides children with disabilities the chance to take part in Indiana’s youth only special deer hunting weekend. The event takes place on land owned by Jim Rogers, who graciously provides his picturesque farm for this event. In addition to hunting, these children also get the opportunity to fish the adjoining Eel River and several neighboring ponds.

This year, 18 children came together for the three-day camping and deer hunting adventure. Each of them was accompanied by a guide.

“This is my first year serving as a guide and as long as I am breathing, I will be here,” said David Trent, who accompanied Tyler Mills.

This was also the year Tyler collected his first deer, a beautiful six-point buck. Tyler was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder characterized by muscle weakness and fibrosis.

“That was one of the most excited I have ever been,” Tyler told the crowd that had gathered around him after arriving back at camp with his trophy.

“I would rather do this than hunt myself,” his guide added with a look of pride as he hoisted his young hunter’s buck onto the game pole.

Hunt coordinator Brad Rozzi summed it up by saying, “I think many of us reach a point in our lives when we are not concerned about taking deer ourselves. It becomes more important to help children experience the wonderful world of ethical hunting, especially when they are special needs children.”

Unlike some other sporting activities where the emphasis is on aggressiveness, competitiveness, and that famous three letter word WIN, this activity is focused on having fun while enjoying the therapeutic benefits of being outdoors.

Too many times, we as adults dwell on the pressures and stress inherent in our everyday lives. Yet there are children, like Noah and Tyler, who deal with the utmost in challenges — every single day. They didn’t ask for it nor do they deserve it, still they welcome each and everyday as a gift. Their zest for life is infectious. If only everyone could witness it.

Although I have visited Freedom Hunt since the inaugural event, I continue to be humbled and find myself doing the same thing every year. Detached from the crowd I take a few moments to enjoy the cool breeze blowing through the autumn woods, soak in the picturesque beauty of the natural surroundings and revel in the distant laughter and sharing of stories. It is then I realize I am witnessing much more than a hunting camp for special needs children. What I am really taking in is the honor of being around a group of great people, doing great things for even greater children.

John Martino is an outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at