It’s a Friday afternoon at Marioneaux Farm in Frierson, LA, one of the most beautiful places in the Ark-La-Tex, especially for anyone who loves the outdoors. There are 28 children attending this fun-filled weekend. Christopher, an 11-year old, and his father drove 20 hours all the way from Indiana to fulfill his dream. Each one of these participants has their own set of challenges. Some suffer from the affliction of being bound to a wheelchair or braces, while others experience ailments such as frequent seizures. On this particular weekend, disabilities were not going to discourage these youngsters. Everyone was on an equal playing field, ready to hunt & fish. For many of these kids, it’s an experience of a lifetime just to be here.
As I stood there watching all the excitement, I was taken back to my own childhood memories. Growing up in a family full of hunters, going out before the sun came up, decked in camo from head to toe to sit in a blind or stand is something you did every weekend during deer season. Afterwards, everyone would gather over a hot cup of coffee to show off their kill or share their story about the one that got away. To me, this was the norm. It’s just what you do when you live in the South. This time was different, as I soaked in the joy of watching dozens of children make their own special memories.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of disabled youths who have never been able to experience the thrill of hunting and fishing because of special needs—that is until the Dream Hunt Foundation was formed to help make those dreams come true. Here at Marioneaux Farm, I enjoyed a front row seat, as dreams became reality for dozens of disabled children.
First, each Dream Hunt guide and cameraman team up with his/her young hunter. Watching these big, Southern woodsmen interact with these children with such tenderness was truly inspiring. I quickly realized these kids are impacting the adults just as much as they’re being impacted.
The guides take time with the children, teaching them to site in their rifles at a nearby gun range. The cutting edge technology on these guns helps to remove their handicap— it’s mind-blowing. Digital camera attachments are set up on each scope to help the kids and guide get an accurate shot. Another special device helps a teenager with limited mobility blow through a straw and fire a bullet. I watch each of their faces light up as they get the chance to pull the trigger and hit the target. “That was awesome,” said one of the children. The more kids and parents I talk to the more I realize this is truly a dream come true for them.
Afterwards, the kids are laughing and bonding over dinner and the parents and volunteers are getting to know one another. You can feel the excitement and anticipation in the room. For many it’s like Christmas Eve. Everyone then heads to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep as these kids have another big day ahead of them, with fish to catch and deer to harvest.
The next morning, everyone is up and ready to go way before the sun comes up, eager to kill a deer. They head to their designated hunting spots which were graciously contributed by multiple landowners in the region, where custom ground stands are set up making it easier for wheel chair access. While waiting for a deer, there are many different quiet conversations going on in the stands between the hunters, guides and participating family members. Several young hunters have success this morning and bring back deer. For those who didn’t get one—they’ll have another chance this evening.
Over lunch I listen as everyone laughs and reminisces about their morning hunt. They then head out to a nearby pond to see if the fish are biting, and they are. It’s a calm fall day, making it a perfect afternoon to soak in the incredible atmosphere. I sit back and watch these kids reel in fish and experience the thrill of the great outdoors. The joy on their faces when they catch a bass or bream is something I’ll never forget.
The family-friendly environment, organization and camaraderie at Dream Hunt are unreal. I can feel the love for this organization and these kids when I talk to Dream Hunt Founder Jeff Warren. I can also hear the passion in his voice as he recalls how the idea of Dream Hunt originally evolved. Recalling an early morning in 2011 when he was sitting in a deer stand and explaining how God spoke to him telling him to do for others, especially when it comes to hunting, what they cannot do for themselves.
After much thought & prayer, Jeff landed a meeting with a few board members at Shriners Hospital in Shreveport. That is when he shared his love for hunting and his plan for Dream Hunt. Needless to say, they were blown away, and at the end of the presentation many of them were in tears. Shriners started by sending 5 kids the first year in 2013. From there, word spread like wildfire about the amazing organization and St. Jude, MDA & The Make-a-Wish foundation all started sending kids. “It blew up; in 2015 we took 92 kids hunting and fishing and we’re on pace to take 120 kids in 2016. Dream Hunt Foundation covers every expense for the children and their families, including travel, lodging, food and all the necessary hunting equipment. We’re the hunting version of Make-A-Wish.”
The growth and the lives changed through Dream Hunt weekend is something to be proud of but Jeff is quick to tell me he couldn’t do it alone. He has an incredible team of volunteers that help every step of the way. “We do this for the kids because we want to bless them, but it’s funny, the people being blessed are every guide, landowner, or the person baking cookies to help with the hunt. Each person seems to find a special connection with this organization because they’re able to reconnect to a loved one who lost their battle with cancer or had a disability. These volunteers love serving others but in many cases it brings them back to their own situation,” says Warren.
Back at the farm, kids and guides make their trek back into the woods for an afternoon of hunting, eager to make more memories. Some get a kill right away. For others dusk starts to set in before they’re able to take a shot. As it starts to get dark, one after another, the kids and their guides begin arriving at the farm with big deer. I can’t help but laugh as I watch one little guy pull his deer behind his wheelchair with a big smile on his face. There are some proud hunters and the gleam in their eyes says it all. “This is their dream, this is the greatest day of their life,” Warren tells me.
Each youngster poses for a picture with his or her prize possession and as tradition would have it when you kill your first deer you put the blood of your kill on your face. The kids watch as their deer are cleaned. The animal meat doesn’t go to waste—they send it home with children and their families to enjoy.
In all, 17 kids shoot deer. For many it may not seem like a big deal, but for these kids it’s a life changing experience they will never forget. “So many of these kids are trapped in their bodies and it just levels the playing field, because for one weekend they’re on equal playing turf with everyone else.”
Over a late dinner one of the hunting guides shares a conversation from his time in the stand waiting for a deer, when his young hunter told him “I’ll stay out here all night if that’s what it takes to kill a deer. I’ll stay out here until midnight or even 1am”. It’s those types of stories and dreams coming true that keep Jeff Warren and his team working hard to make Dream Hunt Foundation such a success. “They love doing it, they love being out here.”
This is the stuff dreams are made of. Just ask 10 year old Talon, a little guy who grew up hunting and fishing, before an accident at the age of 7 kept him from ever walking again. Through Dream Hunt weekend he was able to shoot two deer. “I really don’t want to leave, this is so much fun, it’s a dream come true” Talon said on his way in. That’s what the Dream Hunt Foundation is all about. It goes beyond the camo and deer—it’s about restoring hope for each one of these children, despite their disability. It’s also about showing they can still do normal things and be included.
For Jeff Warren and his crew this is just the beginning of much bigger things to come. “The ultimate goal is to take everyone in America hunting and fishing that wants to go.” That’s a big dream indeed, but Jeff Warren is a dreamer…a dreamer who is creating a world of opportunity and enabling others to live their dreams one hunt at a time.
To learn more about Jeff and Dream Hunt Foundation, visit www.dreamhunt.tv