David Oost is a hunter with multiple sclerosis who has essentially lost the ability to hunt because of his disease’s effects.
However, David and others like him had the chance to get back in the game this weekend with the help of some southern Illinois groups.
The Illinois Wheelin’ Sportsmen bow hunt is a partnership between the Touch of Nature Environmental Center and the National Wild Turkey Federation to allow disabled hunters to go outside and do what they love with a little extra help. Vicki Lang- Mendenhall, a therapeutic recreation specialist at Touch of Nature, said disabled hunters across the region were encouraged to visit the environmental center Friday, Saturday or Sunday and take part in the activities.
She said although the hunt has been held at Touch of Nature for the past 15 years, it was the first year the center partnered with the NWTF. She said the partnership made for a successful combination.
Lang-Mendenhall said southern Illinois groups assisted disabled hunters by setting up hunting areas, driving the hunters to the areas and providing food and shelter for them. She said the efforts may seem simplistic in nature, but they mean a great deal to a disabled hunter such as Oost.
Oost said he has hunted since he was 4 years old, but his disease has made it incredibly difficult to walk to a hunting spot and have enough energy left to do so by the time he gets there. He said the all-terrain vehicles at the event helped alleviate that problem immensely.
“The distances that they were taking me in the ATV would take me half the day to walk,” he said. “By the time I got there, I would be so exhausted that I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
Not only was he impressed with the service, but Oost said the location really helped the hunters relax and talk casually.
Above all else, Oost said events such as this will extend his ability to hunt for more than 10 years. He said even though this was his first time being far south in Illinois, he’ll be sure to come back.
“Now that I know what to expect, returning will be easier,” he said.
Although the experience helped many disabled hunters, Oost said the deer seemed scarce because of the month’s abnormally warm weather.
Hillary Juneau, hunter and disabled Army veteran, managed to bag one of two hunted deer Saturday with the help of her father Mike King, who is also a NWTF member and disabled hunter.
Juneau said she was glad to participate because the atmosphere was very upbeat, and everyone who was present helped the hunting process greatly.
Ross Smith, a senior from Perry studying forestry and NWTF student chapter president, said he was at Touch of Nature all day to help with setup, but he was glad the state’s only NWTF student chapter could do something to give back to the community.
However, NWTF wasn’t the only group to lend a hand.
Elizabeth Kamper, a junior from Rockford studying German and a Delta Zeta sorority member, said five or six sorority members helped assist disabled hunters and enjoyed the stories some of the hunters told.
Kamper said she is ready to get out and hunt after all of the stories and wisdom she heard.
“I want to so bad,” she said. “I’m actually going to go out and buy my first camo Delta Zeta hoodie, hopefully.”
Seven Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity members also helped out tremendously, Smith said.
Although many participants took something away from the experience, some community members are more concerned with the fact that people are hunting on a nature reserve.
King said even though some may view the Touch of Nature hunt to be wrong, the act itself helps with population control. Overpopulation is a problem that could lead to unhealthy deer and property damage, he said, as hungry deer will do whatever it takes to scavenge a meal. Hunting in an overpopulated area such as Touch of Nature can help alleviate that issue, he said.
Outside of the hunting, King said the experience was refreshing and showed some people can make a difference in the lives of many.
Lisa Davis, Illinois Wheelin’ Sportsmen coordinator, said she personally knows events like this can truly lift disabled individuals’ spirits because her husband David, who also attended the event, is in the same situation.
“David sat at home for four years, and we had no idea that this was out there,” she said. “We need to let other people know so they don’t have to sit at home and stare at the same four walls wishing they could do what they used to.”
Davis said she and her husband expect the event to grow, and they both plan to attend for years to come.