"What If ?" Ray Howell's Kicking Bear Camp for Kids

left to right... Doug Johnson, Doug Besherse, Chuck Perry, Rich Schell, Linda Burch, Karen Howell and Ray Howell...
(click on photo to see a larger view)

What if ? How many times in life do we ask that question, and usually out of purely selfish motives? What if we had a million dollars? What if we could retire at age 40? What if we could hunt for a living? What if we had a new vehicle, or a new gun or a new bow? What if'...Indeed.

What if a youngster's father had not been an alcoholic and not cheated on their mother? What if a child's parents had not gotten divorced and the child had not been given the heavy responsibility of being caretaker for their siblings at age 11 because Mom had to go to work full time? What if that youngster had not been dragged into their parents' conflicts, as each parent sought to punish the other by using the child as a weapon in divorce court? What if that child had not sought substance abuse to escape the bleak reality of their pain, insecurity, anger and despair? What if that youngster's Dad had stayed around instead of moving across the country to get away from his kids because he didn't want to be bothered by their desperate need for a Daddy? What if that young person had not contributed to their siblings making the same bad choices? What if that child had not been kicked out of their home at age 17 because of insubordination? What if that child had not kept choosing the wrong paths and had not gotten arrested twice before age 19? What if that child had not fallen into the downward spiral of using illegal drugs and had not contemplated suicide on several occasions?

What if... instead... that child had their youthful energies channeled into the sports of archery and hunting at age 11? What if these sports were dormant passions in that child and suddenly gave the child a sense of hope and purpose? What if that child had mentors and teachers who came along side to help? What if the child excelled and had their pain replaced by confidence, accomplishment, fulfillment and joy? What if the child brought their siblings into the sports too? What if the child had, as a result, developed self-respect enough to say "no" to the bad things that came their way. What if the child had chosen fellow sportsmen as associates instead of druggies and dropouts, and what if the child had spent lengths of time in the woods instead of on the streets?

The Kicking Bear Camp for underprivileged kids is the heart felt passion of its founder, accomplished archer and sportsman, Ray Howell from Minnesota. Ray came from a troubled background and ended up in foster homes in his youth. The good news was that through living in foster homes and working with a social worker, Ray was introduced to hunting and the outdoors. That social worker took Ray hunting four times. The outdoor sports, and especially archery, became an immediate passion for Ray. In recent years, Ray and his wife Karen, have taken troubled kids "under their wings" and helped to turn their lives around.

The Kicking Bear Camps bring as much or more fulfillment to the mentor volunteers, as they do to the children who attend. The agenda is tightly organized, focused on safety and responsibility, and rich in rewards. A Friday night campout, complete with a huge marshmallow fight, precedes the more focused events on Saturday. Besides a 3D course with targets at usually less than 10 feet, there are novelty shoots and instructional time for kids who have never shot a bow. We mentors had the privilege of watching the kids' excitement as they honed their skills. The kids left many fond and fun memories in my mind. One novelty shoot was hitting an apple off the head of a 3D beaver target from 10 yards, and I will never forget the look on the six year olds face who accomplished this feat (see attached photo). A will fondly remember the humorous moment when a little boy clung to me, stroked the back of my hand and pondered aloud, "Gee, your skin doesn't move around on the back our your hand like my grandma's does." And, when the events were over, I decided to shoot the 3D course targets at 20 yards before they took them all down. When I got to the beaver target, I put the arrow dead center at the heart from head on. One child ran up and exclaimed, "WOW! You are a killer." That compliment touched my heart.

What if that real life youngster in the second paragraph had been given the opportunity to be introduced to hunting and archery, instead of screwing up their life well into their mid-20's? That person did discover archery and hunting in their late 30's and they are now as passionate and dedicated to their sports as anyone on the planet. I know this, because that youngster was me. I often look back and wonder: What if someone had put a bow in my hand when I was 11 years old. How would things have been different? I do know this: Ray Howell's Kicking Bear Camp for Kids is a cause I strongly believe in because I saw it working like magic in the few short hours I served as a volunteer. I saw children who did not even want to pick up a bow, later shooting into the vitals of 3D targets with a passionate sense of accomplishment. I saw kids hone their skills after two times around the 3D course and who left the event just jumping at the next chance to get out and fling arrows.

The Kicking Bear Camps are funded through sponsors and are run entirely by volunteers. There is no shortage of events and programs across the country that encourage young people to get into archery and hunting. However, reaching troubled kids is another story. Adults are encouraged to bring kids who are not related to them, and who come from troubled circumstances. This takes many of us way out of our comfort zones and it's much more of a challenge. Sponsors range from industry giants like PSE and Robinson Outdoors, to the neighborhood Kwik Trip store, which donated hot dog buns. The Camps are events that partner community with industry, for the betterment of both. But most importantly, the Kicking Bear Camps encourage children from difficult circumstances to find purpose, identity and hope through the sports of archery and hunting.

Ray Howell going over rules and safety before shooting starts. Safety First, is greatly emphasized.

© June 2002