Life revolves around two important things for Antonice Thomas – maintaining a busy career and caring for her 15 year old son, Cullen Le Roy. Both come with their unique set of challenges. Her son deals with autism, adding extra time and responsibilities to her already busy schedule. Serving as a manager, overseeing 22 recruiters for one of the nation’s largest companies presents its own responsibilities. “I will actually get over one hundred emails an hour,” said Thomas.
Living in the densely populated area of northwest Indiana, spending time in a totally natural setting was something void in their lives. That was until she heard about Freedom Hunt. “Another lady who had her son in it was telling me about it so I looked it up and decided to enroll Cullen,” she explained.
The brainchild of area businessman and avid hunter, Steve Griffey, this unique program provides the opportunity for children with disabilities the chance to spend a weekend camping and taking in a number of consumptive outdoor opportunities. The hunt coincides with Indiana’s youth only deer hunting weekend. In addition to hunting our state premier big game animal, participants could also take in squirrel hunting, trap shooting, fishing and a put-and-take upland bird hunt.
The entire weekend was spent on a rural Cass County farm nestled along the banks of the scenic Eel River. The normally secluded meadow surrounded by woods is transformed into a giant campsite where dozens of tents are erected to accommodate the large gathering. This year 19 children signed up for the free event.
Upon arriving on Friday every child is given their own hunting equipment followed by a delicious meal. They are introduced to their guide who will spend the next two days with them.
“We were excited about this because we knew it was catered to children with special needs,” said Thomas. “People here are sensitive and patient.”
After the first morning’s hunt the once quiet camp began buzzing with excitement as the young hunters and their guides began returning with details of wildlife seen, and not seen. Congratulatory remarks started to fill the camp when it was learned David Staggs had collected a beautiful six-point buck. “It was unbelievable,” he said on numerous occasions.
As the weekend progressed, so did the stories. Kids told about their sightings of wildlife, time spent swimming in the adjacent river, fish caught and birds taken. “This is really amazing,” Thomas said as the weekend drew to a close. “I actually got to spend time with my son off the grid,” she added with a laugh. “This is the first time I have been without any type of communication or Wi-Fi and it gave Cullen and I the chance to connect without those types of constant distractions.You don’t realize how intrusive electronic interruptions actually are until you spend time without them.”
But it’s not just the kids and their families who benefit from this type of program. Even those who graciously serve as guides take something away. “To see the amazement on a child’s face when they see the first rays of daylight or maybe their first deer or turkey makes it all worthwhile,” said Roger Eubank, who has been involved with the hunt since its inception.
For the past 10 years Bill Foust has also dedicated his time serving as a guide. “I wouldn’t miss this,” he explained. “There’s nothing like helping children especially those with special needs,” he said with sincerity.
As the hunt drew to a close Thomas expressed her appreciation to those making the event possible. She explained how her son has difficulties with interpersonal relationships and feels as if he is always being judged and struggles with being accepted. “He never felt like that here,” she added thankfully. “Everyone was amazing and I guarantee we’ll see you next year.”
And that’s just what Griffey and his army of volunteers want, a chance to provide a positive outdoor opportunity for children who may never get the chance. But on the outside they are also providing physical proof to many others there are still good people doing great things.