January 23, 2010 10:49:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
A crisp morning, rich with the promise of sunshine and wood smoke, greeted 13-year-old Christopher Wrench and his friends staying at the Plum Nellie deer camp in southeast Lowndes County. It was going to be another good day.
For one very special November weekend, the Lee Middle School student and his companions donned camo, trekked in the woods, had the opportunity to shoot, ate hearty and shared laughs and good stories -- all soul-pleasing pastimes outdoorsmen routinely accept as their due.
The difference here is that Christopher, after multiple surgeries, has a shunt in his brain to drain fluids. And his friends each live with conditions ranging from dwarfism and Down syndrome to cerebral palsy and paralysis. For most of them, the great outdoors is a rare and exhilarating environment. But on that weekend, every developmental and physical challenge took a back seat to huge smiles and empowering experiences the seven participants and many volunteers reaped at the Outdoors Without Limits (OWL) second annual hunt in Columbus. The local camp was generously loaned by Harvey Myrick and property owners.
"This was such a rewarding experience," said Myrick. "There were so many volunteers who took care of each person. It was just eye-opening to be involved."
Larry and Debbie Taylor are co-chairs of the local OWL chapter, which is affiliated with the national organization and dedicated to providing safe, guided outdoor activities for adults and children with disabilities. Inspired by their son, Nick, 24, the Taylors have been active with this and its predecessor program for about 11 years. Nick, who received a diploma from New Hope High School in 2005, was born with dwarfism, scoliosis and cerebral palsy. He is their life''s joy.
"Our two main group activities each year are the hunt and a catfish round-up on Mother''s Day weekend," said Larry, who, with help from other volunteers, designed and built the portable "shooting house" equipped with a safely mounted rifle with a special sight screen. The group also sponsors some one-on-one hunts, hay rides and other events.
The Taylors, along with others who partnered participants as guides -- David Baucom, Red Rhea, Kenny Smith, Mike Smith and Stan Weathers -- get as much out of the weekend as their charges do. And then there were those who unselfishly volunteered to cook and lend a hand.
Nights around the fireplace in the cozy camphouse were as much fun as the days outdoors. There was even a sing-along with visiting musicians and the youth choir from Community Baptist Church.
"We do this to give them the opportunity to enjoy being together and being in the outdoors, just like people who take it for granted," Larry stated. "They''re just so outgoing; they just bubble over with fun. It kind of reassures you that you''re doing the right thing."
Breaking down barriers
Because of his conditions and medications, Christopher can''t take part in hard physical activity, like football. He can''t even stay in the sun for very long. But on the outing, he was the one person to bag a deer, something he nor his mother, Samantha Wrench, would have ever dreamed possible.
"The whole weekend was so exciting," she enthused. Each participant had a family member accompany them at camp. "They made us feel so welcome. I thought this being his first time, he''d be scared and hesitate, but when he got there, he didn''t want to leave!"
Chris confirmed it. "I just liked going out there and having fun. Mr. Mike showed me how to shoot the gun. I''d never done that before. I really hope I get to go back again."
Kevin Braddock, 15, knows Christopher from the Challenger Baseball League at Propst Park. His parents are Kevin and Janet Braddock of Columbus. "We got to sing some songs, we cooked out, and we stayed around a fire to stay warm," he echoed. "I really liked it."
In addition to Christopher,Nick and Kevin, the other participants were John Cato of Columbus; Marc Ballentine, the son of Patrick and Carla Lambert, formerly of Columbus, now of South Carolina; Andy Gunter, the son of Jim and Lynn Gunter of Smithville; and Lacee Long, the daughter of Jimmy and Sheila Long of Columbus.
May 7-8 will mark the return of the Outdoors Without Limits Catfish Round-up, held annually at Lake Lowndes State Park. While May 7 is set aside for area school students with special needs, May 8 is open to all ages with developmental or physical challenges.
"We''ll have golf carts to help get them down to the water and volunteers to assist however they''re needed, baiting hooks or anything," said Debbie. Last year, she added, about 100 participants and about that many volunteers took part.
Debbie candidly confessed that, like many parents in similar situations, for her there were times shortly after their son was born when she inevitably wondered, "Why?"
"Now I know why," she affirms. "It was to do this. To try to make a difference ... "
Outdoors Without Limits'' area board members include Judy Coleman, Gene Guyton, Danny King, Larry Pitre, Red Rhea, Mike Smith and Stan Weathers, in addition to the Taylors. The volunteers are eager to let families know of the recreational opportunities available, as well as encourage additional volunteers to get involved.
"If you want to experience a heart-changing moment," as the national organization''s Web site states, "this is the place."
To learn more about the Golden Triangle chapter, contact the Taylors at 662-327-8948, or e-mail [email protected]
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.