Five years ago, when Baldwin EMC Energy Marketing Specialist Kevin Wilson was asked if he was interested in volunteering for a deer hunt event for children with special needs, he was intrigued.
“I’m a lifelong hunter myself, so I was interested right off the bat,” Wilson said. “When I found out I would actually be working with a child who would not only need help holding the gun, but who was also hearing impaired, that’s when I got nervous.”
But Wilson showed up on a Saturday morning, met his young hunting partner, Kerstan, and her father, and they spent the day together in the woods – none of them knowing quite what to expect.
“Her dad wasn’t a hunter, and there wasn’t a lot of activity going on in the woods, but there we were together, sitting for hours in a little 6’ x 6’ hut,” Wilson said. “I started praying for something… anything…to happen. When Kerstan started getting restless, I pulled out my face paint and tried to buy some time, and then I looked over and there they were: four deer just standing there. I told Kerstan’s dad to sign to her to be really, really still. I shouldered the gun and motioned to her to pull the trigger. She shot that deer and then she just started squealing. All I could think about was how I didn’t care if I ever shot another deer myself. That moment put it all into perspective, and now I go back every year.”
The Kerstan Wilson referenced is Kerstan Johnson (now 14), the very child who was the inspiration behind the Making Memories Deer Hunt.
Now in its sixth year, the event was launched by Darlene and Travis Comstock, who initially came up with the idea to fulfill a promise to a friend.
“Kerstan’s mom is one of my very best friends and we’ve known each other for a long time,” Darlene Comstock said. “When she was pregnant with Kerstan, she told Travis and me that when she was old enough, we were in charge of teaching her daughter how to hunt. It was something she didn’t do herself, but she knew even before Kerstan was born that it was a skill she wanted her little girl to have.”
When Kerstan was born with spina bifida, however, her family’s dreams for her to learn to hunt were over…or so they thought.
“It weighed heavy on my heart,” Comstock said. “But my husband told me, we will figure out a way to make this work. We told her parents to raise her up a little bit, and to leave it to us to find a way to take her into the woods.”
To be sure, the logistics involved in figuring out a way to make a hunting camp wheelchair and handicap accessible are difficult. But, as the Comstocks realized, the concept wasn’t impossible.
“It was actually not as hard as we thought it was going to be, once we started doing some research,” Comstock said. “As we started making plans, it occurred to us, there have to be more kids out there who would benefit from this experience.”
The Comstocks’ plans materialized in the form of the inaugural Making Memories Hunt, which attracted 14 children with disabilities. The event has grown to nearly 40 young hunters in 2017.
Volunteers like Wilson show up to the camp on Friday to set up for the hunt, which kicks off Saturday morning and lasts all day with an optional Sunday afternoon hunt as well.
“For the participants, it’s not about harvesting the deer,” Wilson said. “It’s about getting away from everything else and just checking out for a little while. The kids there build these relationships and look forward to seeing each other year after year. It’s just as much fun for them to see each other at the meals and playing at the camps as it is to hunt.”
“It takes a whole year of planning for this event, but we have a huge support from the community and that is such a blessing,” Comstock said. “There is no cost to participate. We provide them with a gun and we feed them and sometimes even help with lodging. There’s a lot that goes into it, but the experience these kids have is such a reward. Every year the cheerleading section gets bigger and bigger. We try to give these kids a positive experience, to make them feel like there is nothing they can’t do – like they have just won the biggest football game of their lives.”
The 2018 Making Memories Hunt will be held Saturday and Sunday, December 8 & 9 at the Old Brady Hunting Club. (Located east of Highway 59 and north of Interstate 10
between Loxley and Bay Minette.)
For more information on volunteering or participating in the event, contact Darlene Comstock at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow the Making Memories Deer Hunt page on Facebook.