Following the Path of Volunteerism
Patrick Morse has been across the country spreading the word about the NWTF's Wheelin' Sportsmen program and he's more than happy to tell you how to get involved.
Morse discovered his passion for turkey hunting at age 9.
"It was opening day of the 1991 Illinois spring turkey season," Morse said. "Dad let me carry the gun for the first time. We spent the weeks before season scouting. On opening morning, we had two birds going nuts on the limb. I remember Dad making a few soft tree calls, and next thing I knew, the two gobblers pitched down right on top of us. The sounds of the birds spitting, drumming and gobbling just feet from our set up was the most intense and exciting feeling I had ever experienced."
Over the past 22 seasons, turkey hunting has played a huge role in Morse's life, and, at 31, he gets just as excited when a gobbler is in tight as he did at 9.
The NWTF is a Family Thing
"My dad and my uncles, Jay and Jerry Bennett, introduced my brother and me to the NWTF at a very early age," Morse said. "When they were growing up, Illinois's turkey population had been cut so dramatically there were no hunting seasons. They would hunt turkeys in Missouri every spring and that drove their passion to support the NWTF's reintroduction and conservation mission."
The family farm was one of the original turkey release sites in the area in 1978. Ten turkeys were released in the Macoupin Creek bottom, and all of the neighboring farmers had to sign a petition to protect the new turkey population. The reintroduction was such a success, that Macoupin County held its first turkey season in 1987.
"By the time I started hunting, turkeys were plentiful in our area, but Dad made sure we never took turkeys or any other wildlife for granted," Morse said. "He made sure my brother and I appreciated the incredible efforts the NWTF and private landowners took to ensure we have turkeys and other wildlife to enjoy."
Morse began his NWTF career 22 years ago.
"I began as a JAKES member and have been involved ever since," Morse said. "Since [receiving] my undergraduate degree in 2005, graduate school and work has required me to move all over the country. The first thing I do when I move to a new area is to contact the local NWTF chapter and try to get involved. No matter where I have lived, whether it's Boston, Virginia, Chicago or now in California, I have always been able to find new, life-long NWTF friends who are as passionate about hunting as I am."
A New Focus
Morse got involved in the Wheelin' Sportsmen NWTF program while living and working in Virginia.
"In 2007, I moved to Charlottesville to take a position at the University of Virginia Cancer Center," Morse said. "I contacted the local NWTF chapter in Charlottesville and was directed to [Virginia Wheelin' Sportsmen Coordinator] Robin Clark. I spoke with Robin on the phone shortly after that, and he and I quickly hit it off. I learned Robin was a quadriplegic from an accident when he was a teenager, but he continued to be an avid outdoorsmen despite his disability. That blew me away and left a lot of questions in my head about how he was able to pull this off. He invited me to join him on a turkey hunt and I jumped at the opportunity."
One morning, Clark picked Morse up in his specially built van with a lift gate so he can get in and drive while still in his electric wheel chair.
"As the hunt played out, not only did Robin and I become fast friends, I quickly realized Robin was a hunter just like the rest of us; he just needed a little extra help in the field," said Morse. "Over the course of that hunt, he told me about his work with Wheelin' Sportsmen. From then on, I began volunteering with the Virginia Wheelin' Sportsmen program, and I haven't looked back since."
Morse said Wheelin' Sportsmen has made him appreciate every moment he gets to spend outdoors.
"Being a part of the Wheelin' Sportsmen program has profoundly changed my life," he said. "I have been privileged to meet so many people who have the same passion and drive for the outdoors as I do, but their disability has kept them from getting in the field. When these folks come on a Wheelin' Sportsmen hunt, we're not trying to just get them in the field for one day, we're trying to give them the confidence to get back into the outdoors on their own." Morse says watching participants' confidence and self-esteem grow due to their participation is a truly humbling experience.
"Knowing we were able to play a small part in helping people live the life they desire makes you realize just how impactful and life changing Wheelin' Sportsmen is, not only for the participants, but for the volunteers as well," he said.
Go West, Young Man
When Morse moved to California, he got involved there too.
"The transition has been quite challenging for me," Morse said. "When I initiated the Wheelin' Sportsmen in Illinois, I was blessed to have a network of family, friends and other resources to pull from to identify venues for potential events."
His biggest challenge in Illinois was to create a network of participants and identify ways to expose new people to the program. Because of the familiarity he had with Illinois, the program had unprecedented growth in the first year.
"Two years later, my career led me to California, and I am now tasked with trying to expand the California Wheelin' Sportsmen program," said Morse. "It's been difficult because I am trying to establish myself in California and make contacts that will lead to increased Wheelin' Sportsmen participation. We're into our second year here and the foundation is paying dividends."
In August, the chapter hosted an event in cooperation with the Catalina Island Conservancy to take three Wheelin' Sportsmen hunters on a mule deer hunt and salt water fishing trip on Catalina Island. They will host Wheelin' Sportsmen members who are a part of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton.
The Importance of Mentoring Volunteers
Clark played a huge role getting Morse's volunteer career rolling.
"Mentoring has played a huge role in my NWTF and Wheelin' Sportsmen experience," Morse said. "In my early days with Wheelin' Sportsmen, I was blessed to be able to work with and learn from Robin, who has grown the Virginia Wheelin' Sportsmen into an absolute giant. They are organized and have terrific relationships with public and private landowners to provide incredible, high-quality experiences for their vast network of participants. Robin taught me everything I know and gave me the necessary tools to work on establishing new programs in Illinois and California."
Now that Morse is acting as the state coordinator for the California Wheelin' Sportsmen, his primary job is to identify opportunities for new members and event locations, as well as mentor local chapters on how to host their own events. Each February, the state holds a leadership conference and Morse conducts a seminar to help local chapters gain the knowledge needed to identify opportunities for events and participants in their communities.
"We are starting to see the benefits of their tutorials as new Wheelin' Sportsmen events and dedicated chapters are starting to pop up throughout California," Morse said. "It's very exciting and gratifying for me to see all our hard work result in increased opportunities for hunters with disabilities. I absolutely love it."
So how do you establish a Wheelin' Sportsmen event?
"Start small," Morse said. "Most people who are new to the program are intimidated by all of the extra work required to host a successful Wheelin' Sportsmen event. Start with a small amount of hunters for new events and take the time to understand the nuances of the participant's disabilities." Morse says the more work you do up front, the more you can tailor your event to the individual, which ensures participants have the most safe, comfortable and successful experience possible.
Patrick Morse says he's happy to help mentor anyone interested in initiating a new Wheelin' Sportsmen event. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.