by Chris Chaffin - Wednesday, September 20, 2023
“No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.”—Abraham Lincoln
In the last decade, the hunting community has actively embraced the need to recruit new hunters/conservationists. Now, hundreds of new programs are on the ground, helping to reverse the downward trend in participation.
However, some individuals and organizations saw the need for such efforts much earlier, spurred on, in at least one case, by wildlife conservation needs, which is what happened in 1960 when Texas Game Warden Gene Ashby created Operation Orphans (OO) in Mason County, Texas.
Ashby knew the countryside had too many deer and coupled that challenge with knowing children in orphanages could benefit from both learning about and actively participating in on-the-ground deer management. He asked ranchers from around the area to allow orphans from children’s homes across the state to hunt their land. They agreed, and Operation Orphans was born.
Today, OO is a nonprofit organization that provides children with “unique and wonderful outdoor experiences by sponsoring hunting and fishing trips in the Texas Hill Country.” In many cases, it’s the first real such [outdoor] experience these children have had.
It’s headquartered at Camp Gene Ashby, a 250-acre camp on the Llano River that is “well-stocked with aoudad sheep, axis deer and whitetail deer.” The hunts run from Friday night through Sunday morning.
Tom Hewitt, who began as a volunteer in 1984, was put on the board in 1986 and is now OO’s first vice president. “I fell in love with it,” explains Hewitt. “It’s all about the children—and the volunteers who care about them. We work to provide these young people not only with the opportunity to hunt and fish but also with a mentored experience that readily builds relationships and can truly change lives.”
OO hunting adventures are multi-purpose. They get youngsters outdoors and teach them gun safety as well as hunting, tracking and outdoor skills while providing them with adult companionship and the opportunity to harvest a deer.
Firearm safety is a critical part of the program for all participants, including for the volunteers, who are knowledgeable about the safe operation and handling of guns. They work alongside Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff to instill the fundamentals of gun safety.
“One of our biggest challenges today is educating the orphanages and foster parents, etc., on how this experience will teach kids responsibility, as well as conservation stewardship,” Hewitt shared.
Since its inception, OO volunteers have taken 19,808 children on hunting and fishing trips, with 18,125 animals harvested. All the harvested game is processed to provide food for families. More than 775,000 pounds of meat have been donated to date. In working to expand its reach, in June 2005 the program also began offering two fishing camps.
Hewitt and other volunteers say it’s the relationships developed during the events that really add special meaning to their involvement. There are five to six current Board members who were young participants in the 1970s. One hunter who took part in a chaperoned girls deer hunt 15 years ago recently reached out to Hewitt on Facebook to reconnect and told him how memorable and meaningful that hunt was to her. Another volunteer became a foster parent to an OO participant who just graduated from college. Similar stories abound.
Camp Gene Ashby is supported through donations. OO continues to improve the facilities and the surrounding environment to provide boys and girls with a memorable outing. The facilities have been expanded to accommodate 200 children, largely due to the support of the community, the Mason County Chamber of Commerce and the Sportsmen's Clubs of Texas along with many other organizations and individuals.
OO sells raffle tickets each year at gun and sporting shows across Texas to help raise money to support its goal of taking children on hunting and fishing trips. Other support comes from those who grant access to their hunting land, donate hunting equipment or supplies and make financial donations, which are accepted via Pay Pal.
For more information on Operation Orphans, including a view of its fall and winter hunt schedule, and learn how to become a hunting guide or how to bring a child on a hunt, please visit http://www.operationorphans.org/or contact the organization at 325-347-6745; [email protected].
About the Author
An outdoor communicator for more than 40 years, Chris Chaffin has worked with multiple outdoor companies, including serving two terms as treasurer of the Professional Outdoor Media Association before taking on the roles of vice president, president and chairman of the board. In 2007, he launched the communications consulting company Chaffin Communications. With support from the Outdoor Adventure Dream Giveaway, in 2012 he founded the Outdoor Adventure Conservation Fund, a Florida nonprofit encouraging more people to get involved in traditional outdoor activities.
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