After two days of hunting and a couple of missed opportunities, Katelin, an eight-year-old cancer patient seen in the photo above, finally had her crosshairs steadied on a deer.
“It’s totally up to you,” her guide said. “What do you want to do?”
“Shoot it,” Katelin whispered with nervous anticipation. She pulled the trigger, and the shot rang out.
“You hit him!”
“I still can’t catch my breath.”
“Did you get nervous?”
“Yes, very nervous. I’m still nervous.”
Katelin, leading the way through the brush in search of her first deer, finally spotted him.
“Right there! It’s a big one! It does have horns!” Katelin said. “Daddy is going to be proud of me!”
Katelin Stone’s experience was made possible through the ministry of Hope Outdoors.
“They became another family to us,” Jessica and Cecil Stone, Katelin’s parents, said of Hope Outdoors. “They had so much love for Katelin and all the kids. More than the hunt, their goal is discipleship and teaching Jesus, and they live up to that goal in every way.”
The Stones continued: “Hope Outdoors taught us as a family that inviting others into our circumstances – whether victories or failures – truly allows the love of Christ to flow and encourage.”
Heart for the hurting
Hope Outdoors began with a shared passion for hunting and fishing, a love for people, and a heart for helping others. Several men from the Chatom, Alabama, area met with a vision to organize an outdoor ministry that would serve those with special needs, the disabled, and the terminally ill.
From that meeting, and through much prayer and God’s blessings, Hope Outdoors was created. While Hope Outdoors ministers to participants through outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, their primary mission is to show Christ’s love and share His message of salvation.
Since its inception in 2005, Hope Outdoors has grown from 1 chapter to 18 chapters in 6 states. National director Steve Thomas told AFA Journal, “Well, first of all, God opened these doors, it’s nothing I’ve done or anyone else has done.” But Thomas said as people have witnessed the ministry in action in recent years, the growth has exploded.
“The beauty of what we’re doing is that everyone gets ministered to,” Thomas said. “We don’t just want the hunter, we want them and several members of the family as well. While the husband is in the woods, the volunteer ladies back at camp may take the wife to get her nails done. It’s a ministry for the whole family.”
“People come help out in many ways – cooking, cleaning, preparing facilities, and helping participants settle in when they arrive,” Thomas added. “What we really want is for these volunteers to just come love on people.”
Not surprisingly, those who show up to help are tremendously blessed themselves. Thomas shared that most of the people who give their hearts to the Lord are actually the volunteers who are moved by seeing the positive attitudes and faith of those whom they are there to serve.
Hope Outdoors works hard to make an outdoor experience that seems like an impossibility become a reality. Their motto is, “When the world says ‘No,’ we say ‘Yes!’ When the world says, ‘Can’t’ we find a way.”
Access to lakeshores, turkey blinds, game trails, boats, and deer stands that would normally be off-limits to those bound to a wheelchair, is now possible through the use of track chairs – electric wheelchairs with tracks like a tank.
“Those things are amazing, they’ll go through almost anything,” Thomas said. “And on a slow hunting day when nothing’s moving, we let them drive the track chairs through the mud, and they have the time of their life.”
In the end, the fish, turkey, or deer is not what it’s all about. “If we do nothing else at Hope Outdoors, we at least want to show people the secret to contentment,” Thomas said. “And that comes through a relationship with Christ. That’s what I want them to see.”
Vision for veterans
In 2006, in a desire to minister to wounded veterans, Tron Peterson began a similar ministry taking disabled warriors on deer and turkey hunts on the family farm and surrounding properties offered by neighbors.
By 2010, his organization had developed into Peterson Outdoors Ministries. As the ministry grew, Peterson began to see the need for a permanent facility that would accommodate year-round ministry efforts. The result was POM’s Lodge of Hope, a beautiful facility that backs up against a serene 35-acre spring-fed lake on 200 acres of property in Southwest Missouri.
POM has expanded its reach beyond that of disabled veterans to include adults and youth who struggle with disabilities and the families who care for them, as well as anyone in distress who may deserve a break from life’s burdens.
The hunting and fishing adventures are free of charge, but Peterson said, “We do it combined with the experience of a faith-based program that allows those who come to our events to experience the love and compassion that is found in Jesus Christ.”
Each morning begins with a time of devotion where a message is shared with the participants, guides, and cameramen. “[It’s] something they can take to the blind with them and think about the rest of the day,” Peterson said.
Tom, a volunteer, explained on a POM video how typically as a guide, the main objective is to get a client into that perfect location to have a successful hunt. “With POM, however, our objective is not that,” he said. “Yeah, we want to accomplish that, but our objective is not what’s out there in front of us. It’s what’s sitting beside us.”
Tom recalled one of his most moving experiences as a guide with POM. He had guided a wounded warrior on an unsuccessful evening hunt, and upon returning to the vehicle was surprised by the optimism of the wheelchair bound veteran.
“[He] called us all together and stood up feebly in front of his wheelchair,” Tom explained, “and said ‘I would like to close us with prayer this evening.’” Tom listened in amazement as the gentleman thanked God for his disability and told God he wanted to thank the POM team for being brothers in Christ to him.
“To me that’s the trophy we should be after,” Tom added. “Yeah, we want that monster buck or that mallard or whatever it is to hang on the wall, but … we are here for the souls and hearts of the people we minister to.”
“I’ve had the privilege and honor to be able to participate with POM in multiple events,” said Doug Gilmer, senior chief petty officer, U.S. Coast Guard. “I’ve never been to an event where I’ve seen lives changed so dramatically in such a short period of time than I have with POM. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a family that has given more to veterans, to wounded warriors, to young people.”
“Wounded warriors across our nation are in such need of encouragement, hope, and restoration,” Peterson said. “We want to do our best to make a difference in their lives.
“Not only now, but for eternity.”
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2019 print edition of the AFA Journal and online here. Get a free six-month trial subscription to the print edition here delivered to your mailbox in the U.S.