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Wheelin' Sportsmen 2001 Event Roundup

By: Chasiti Kirkland

Hidden among the hollows of Alabama is a place that passes for peaceful, even in the clutches of war. Strangers treat you like friends and friends consider you family. Maybe that's why hundreds of people head for Union Springs, Ala., each year--destination Camp Team-Up.

It's their chemotherapy, their daily dose of medicine and their freedom from the grips of a sometimes cruel world. At Camp Team-Up, participants of Wheelin' Sportsmen NWTF events aren't just another paraplegic or amputee. And the smiles on their faces at the end of every weekend say more than any thank you ever could. At this Deep South hideaway, you'll hear stories about an autistic girl who for the first time in her life caught a fish. Or the young woman who decided against suicide the moment she saw a Wheelin' Sportsmen T-shirt laying at her feet. The many memories she brought home after each event made life worth living, she said. You'll also hear the story of the boy with spina bifida who begged his doctor for an early release from the hospital so he could hunt whitetails with his dad.

The paragraphs that follow are actual accounts of how Wheelin' Sportsmen events, some which are held at Camp Team-Up, have changed lives, even saved them.

Does For Does, Nov. 27-30
Until Thanksgiving weekend, the closest BreAnna Shelly had ever come to the outdoors was watching the Discovery channel or "Wild Kingdom." She had always marveled at nature's many miracles, but it wasn't until she attended Does For Does that BreAnna saw a flock of wild turkeys or watched a fawn amble through the Alabama woods.

BreAnna would not have participated in the event--the second-largest ever--if her mother had listened to her head; luckily her heart stepped in. For two weeks before and during the drive from Dothan, Ala., to Camp Team-Up, she worried that her 14-year-old would be rejected by the other women and children who attended the annual deer hunt. It had happened before at school, at church, at the park, and it would surely happen again--the giggles, the stares, the caustic remarks. But it didn't, because at every Wheelin' Sportsmen NWTF event most of the people who attend are disabled.

A neurologist in Birmingham, Ala. diagnosed BreAnna with autism 3 years ago, a diagnosis her mother half way suspected. All the signs were there: sensitivity to certain sounds or the flash of a camera. "Her world is like an out-of-tune piano," her mother, DeeAnna, said. Her reflexes were slower than normal, and as a toddler, BreAnna crawled on her tiptoes and fingertips. DeeAnna would later learn that it was because her only daughter couldn't stand to be touched, a common symptom among autistic children.

"Bringing BreAnna to Does For Does was the smartest decision I've ever made," DeeAnna said. "She's seen the world in a totally different way, a world that passes for peaceful and where people hug, hold hands and genuinely care about mankind."

Ultimate Team-Up, Dec. 13-16
The time was drawing near for Tyler Counts. In just a few days, hunters would be hitting the deer woods, all with a case of buck fever. Tyler had it, too. But how could he down a deer from the hospital bed, where he had spent the last four weeks? There was only one answer: To heck with the hospital. "I told the doctor that I had to be out of here by Thursday," said the 14-year-old from Mt. Hope, Ala., "I had a hunt to go to."

Tyler, like many of the Wheelin' Sportsmen participants, has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair. But he hasn't dared let his disability keep him from the outdoors. "He sees other people in wheelchairs at these events and realizes that he's not alone," said his father, Thomas.

On the second day of the hunt, Tyler took a deer, another precious moment for the Counts' memory book. Last year at a similar event, he killed his first buck, a spike, which is hanging on a wall at home. "He's so proud of that deer," his mother said. "It's like having a 12-point buck mounted."

Tyler's story touched many grown-ups that weekend. A former Marine even admits to getting misty eyed. "I can't remember ever being a part of something that affected me so much. I get angry because my job takes me away from the woods, yet, there he is not grumbling one bit about pain or being in a wheelchair."

Ultimate Duo, Dec. 28-30
The smiles on their faces said more than any thank you ever could--the kids who came to Union Springs for the annual Ultimate Duo had the time of their lives.

From the first day to the last, the friendships they forged around the warmth of a campfire meant more than any gift Santa Claus could have left under the Christmas tree. For the entire weekend, Camp Team-Up was alive with camaraderie, laughter and love. Some children shot their first deer or saw their first flock of longbeards. Others hooked their first crappie or slung their first fly rod. And the friendly games of kickball always drew a crowd, as did the archery, air gun and riflery stations.

"Our program is changing lives, even saving lives, and for that I am thankful," said Kirk Thomas, Wheelin' Sportsmen's national coordinator.

This writer has to fess up, too. I once was in a wheelchair, but by the grace of God, am able to walk again. The only sign of cerebral palsy that once gripped my lower body is a slight limp in my right leg. I've learned a lot about determination over the years, but I've learned even more from the men, women and children who attend Wheelin' Sportsmen events. Their courage has given me the grit to try things I shied away from before. The fear of failing always tied me down. But these folks, most of them strangers, have taught me one thing: Failure is not trying the first time around.



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