Each year during the final weekend in September, magic takes place in rural Cass County. It has nothing to do with illusions or sleight of hand and it’s no coincidence it takes place during Indiana’s special youth only deer hunting season.
For some children with physical or emotional challenges the great outdoors might mean nothing more than a slab of concrete or patch of asphalt. Experiencing a true, natural setting, teeming with wildlife, might be out of their normal realm of enjoyment. But this hunt is special. Freedom Hunt offers children with various types of physical and mental disabilities a unique opportunity to spend the weekend camping, hunting and fishing. It is here they become free from their disabilities, at least for a little while.
The event was the brainchild of area businessman Steve Griffey. He has also enlisted the help of Logansport attorney Brad Rozzi, who serves as hunt coordinator. Together they spend countless hours each year organizing and planning the fall hunt. Instead of accepting praise, Griffey always deflects the hunt’s success to the many volunteers who make it possible. “There is no way we could provide this type of experience without all the people who serve as guides, cooks and those who help set up camp.”
For the 13th year Jim Rogers graciously gave up his sprawling farm to a small army of volunteers and kids. “At the first Freedom Hunt I didn’t know what to expect and I had some concerns about liability issues,” Rogers explained. “But after that first year and the happiness I saw from children who deal with disabilities made it all worthwhile.” Since the inaugural event Rogers has since solicited help from his neighbors providing even more land for hunt activities.
This year 17 participants gathered at the isolated camp site nestled along the banks of the Eel River, near the tiny town of Hoover. Soon after arriving, each child is presented with their own hunting equipment. They are also introduced to their personal guides who caringly take the children under their collective wings, showing them the wonders of our outdoor resources. The children will spend the next two days hunting, fishing, shooting trap and horseback riding, whichever they desire. After all, this weekend is all about them.
It wasn’t long on opening morning before the camp started buzzing with excitement. Reports began coming in on cell phones and radios about children who had collected deer. The day was still young when Hannah Penn and Londyn Baker arrived back at camp, their faces beaming with pride, as you would expect from 10 year old girls who had just achieved one of hunting’s greatest accomplishments.
The small crowd gathered around to see their harvest and hear their stories. This was Baker’s third year attending and the most special because she had taken her first deer, a plump doe.
“This is one of the best times ever,” she said, her face covered in camo paint. “These are some of the best people ever and the food they cook over the campfire is amazing,” she explained, while looking thankfully at Brad Rozzi, her guide for the weekend.
“It is so rewarding to be able to give something back to our outdoor resources and getting children involved leaves a lasting legacy,” Rozzi went on to explain. “And to help children with disabilities take in our natural resources is the greatest joy.”
Next up to the game pole came Hannah Penn, accompanied by Tom Hewitt, who is serving his ninth year as a guide. Hewitt recently retired after a 41 year stint as our areas DNR wildlife biologist. They both recalled how shortly after daylight they watched wild turkeys pitch out of trees into the field they overlooked. “Then we watched as deer started coming into view,” Penn said recapping the morning’s events. “She made a terrific shot,” Hewitt added, patting his diminutive hunter on the back.
Both girls met at a summer camp where their friendship was created. But this wasn’t your normal camp. Instead it was a gathering for children who deal with Type 1 diabetes. It was here they both agreed to sign up for Freedom Hunt. “You don’t realize the challenges of having a child with Type 1,” explained Eric Baker. “On the outside they may look completely normal but there are challenges every day and to get them involved with something like this is amazing.”
For some, their disabilities are barely noticeable. For others it’s highly distinguishable. Like Shanin Walker. The 17 year old endures a condition called arthrogryposis scoliosis, confining him to a wheelchair and tracheotomy. He attends with his grandfather James Walker. Shanin collected his deer with a mechanism attached to his wheelchair which holds his gun. With some help aiming all he has to do to shoot is blow into a straw attached to the apparatus. He serves to others as proof anyone can accomplish a dream if it’s what’s in their heart.
Every single day we learn of sorrowful events taking place, broadcasted by every type of news outlet. Sometimes it leaves us shaking our heads with concerns about where society is headed. But it doesn’t take long after spending time at Freedom Hunt that you quickly realize those who help provide this type of opportunity serve as a true testament there are still good people who believe in doing great things.