A group of six young men got the opportunity to hunt deer in Texas County last weekend.
And for each one, the experience was special.
The six are all disabled or underprivileged in one way or another and were part of an event sponsored by Hope Outdoors, a Christian non-profit organization based in Cosby, Tenn.
Operating since 2001, Hope Outdoors describes itself as “a non-denominational Christian outdoor ministry that works together with other caring organizations to spark hope in the lives of those less fortunate.”
The specific method used to achieve that end is the staging of hunts and fishing trips for children and adults.
Chris Forester and his wife Leslie, of Strafford, started Hope Outdoors’ Missouri chapter about a year ago.
“It is definitely a ministry, and the Lord called us to do this,” Forester said. “Our mission is to take families that have been through traumatic situations and love on them, share the love of Christ with them and give them a weekend of relaxation and enjoyment of the outdoors. And some of the participants didn’t think they would ever be able to this kind of thing again.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
An avid outdoorsman for as long as he can remember, Forester feels right at home with his Hope Outdoors duties. It’s a chance to mix his love for the outdoors with his zeal for the Lord.
“I love to hunt and fish and I love to share the gospel,” he said, “so it’s a perfect fit.”
So far, Hope Outdoors sponsors outings in six states: Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.
Forester and his staff put on about three events a year, including a youth deer hunt, a youth turkey hunt, and late-spring fishing derby. Plans are in place to expand the operation and begin doing deer and turkey hunts for combined youth and adult participants.
Many of the guns used by Hope Outdoors are acquired through donation, and hunts are staged on private property owned by local residents. Two property owners, Paul Murray and Roy Gaither, donated the use of their combined 1400 acres for last weekend’s Texas County hunt.
“I’m real pleased to help out,” Gaither said. “Anytime you can get kids involved in outdoor activity, I think that’s a real good deal.”
Several other local residents offered their services as guides and camera people for the hunters.
“Without people like the Gaither and Murray families, we couldn’t do these hunts,” Forester said. “We don’t like to use public land and we do this exclusively on private lands, so we need people to offer their land for it to be possible.
“And we’re blessed by everyone else who helps out; it makes such a difference.”
Forester and his wife manage rental properties, are involved in the nutrition business, and are active at Oak Grove Assembly church in Springfield. Forester describes the way he hooked up with Murray as being divinely inspired; the two met and began talking when Forester’s sister-in-law and Murray’s daughter were having babies at the same time in a Springfield hospital.
“I told him to pray about whether he would be interested in helping us host a hunt,” Forester said. “A few weeks later he contacted me and said he and his brother had talked and they absolutely wanted to. Then he got me connected with Russell, and he and his dad Roy both wanted to be a part. So we were able to utilize both of their farms.”
Special equipment is sometimes used to make hunting possible for disabled participants.
“Last year we had a girl who couldn’t hold a gun,” Forester said, “but we have a mount that mounts on a wheelchair. She shoots the gun through a device that pulls the trigger when she sucks on a straw, and she was able to move the gun around with a joystick.”
The six hunters involved in the Texas County event came from several different parts of the Ozarks:
•Colton Braun, a 15-year-old from Branson who has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheel chair since an early age.
•Marcus Snook, a 15-year-old from Rogersville who lost his mother to cancer.
•J.J. Gregorie, a 12-year-old from Hartshorn who at the age of three lost an arm in a car accident.
•Christopher Johnson, an 11-year-old from Ozark who has suffered through family trauma.
•Steven Westlund, and 11-year-old from Houston who has also been through family trauma.
•Braiden Sullivan, a 6-year-old from Springfield who lost most of his right leg at the age of 2 ½ when he was run over by a riding lawn mower.
Following Saturday’s hunting activities, a crowd of more than 100 people gathered at the Gaither property for fellowship and a meal. Much of the food for the throng was provided by Clara Baptist Church, while KFC donated 100 pieces of chicken.
Roy and son Russell Gaither set up deer blinds and did much of the organizing prior to the event. Russell said the big crowd was not expected.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Saturday at noon, we had no clue what we were going to feed everybody that night. We had planned on just cooking hot dogs, but we didn’t realize we were going to have that many people. When things started coming about, and we knew we were going to have a bunch of people, we made a few phone calls and everything came together.”
Russell said he and his dad plan to host a Hope Outdoors turkey hunt next spring and another youth deer hunt next November. He said the turkey hunt is likely to be recorded and shown on the Pursuit Channel’s Sovereign Sports program.
Forester looks forward to growing Hope Outdoors’ presence in Missouri, but said he needs some help to make that happen.
“We’re still new and we need sponsorships,” he said. “By the time we bring in all the families and feed them, it gets expensive.”
To become involved with Hope Outdoors in Missouri, or arrange todonate funds or equipment, call Forester at 417-830-6693. For moregeneral information about Hope Outdoors, log ontowww.hopeoutdoors.org.