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Boy’s experience ‘much more than a deer hunt’

Twelve-year-old Chandler Love killed his first deer recently and the experience was one only a few get to share in the same context.

The Lipsey Middle School sixth grader was watching “Mississippi Outdoors” on PBS earlier this year with his mother, Nancy Love, and learned about Super Hunt. An annual deer hunt for youth with disabilities in Mississippi, the three-day event is open to any child with a letter from his or her doctor identifying their disability.

Chandler has Asperger syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

The mom and son talked about it and Nancy signed her son up to participate.

“To give a child that doesn’t have the ability to experience the love of the outdoors this opportunity … it’s really a cool thing,” the single mother said.

The hunt began in 2005 as a sportsman hunt with the National Wild Turkey Federation. Around 2012, the non-profit foundation of Southern Outdoors Unlimited formed with most of the original hunt’s committee members to keep sponsor donations in the state and focus on children ages 6-17 who had some type of disability.

Dan Robinson of Vicksburg, a Super Hunt organizer, says the hunt is by far his favorite weekend of the year, bar none.

“I look forward to it more than anything, honestly, and I’m always disappointed when it’s over,” he said, “because it means I have to wait another 364 days before we can do it again.”

The hunt takes place the weekend before gun season for deer hunting begins, with the support of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

“Because it’s before the regular gun season starts, the success rate is always phenomenal,” Robinson said, adding that 94 kids hunted on 54 properties statewide for this year’s hunt, harvesting 134 deer. “Our success rate would not nearly be that if they didn’t allow us to do that. The commissioners have let us do it for 14 years now.”

All that is required of the families is the submitted letter from their child’s doctor, and that they get themselves to the property where their hunt will take place. Everything else is provided for them, Robinson said, from lodging to food to fun activities when they are not hunting.

“It’s so much more than a deer hunt,” Robinson said, though the volunteer guides work hard to give each child the perfect “deer camp experience.”

“It’s camaraderie, family, food, fun. You develop relationships with the families and their kids.”

More land owners than ever before offered the use of their properties for the Super Hunt this year. Some were campers in the woods and others were some of the most desirable multi-million dollar camps in the state. Participants who return for subsequent hunts get rotated, so they have the opportunity to experience all types of settings, lodgings and hunting areas.

About 75% of the hunters return, Robinson said. Some “age out” of the program, but the foundation has begun other events, like a turkey hunt and an alligator hunt, that are open to these participants, too. There have been at least 90 participants each year for the past few years.

“I always tell people we get as much or more of a blessing out of this than they do,” Robinson said. “It’s a God thing — you can definitely say that.”

“Jon Barrentine was our guide for the weekend,” Nancy Love said. “He was great with Chandler and (his brother) Preston. He taught them gun safety and spent time with them target shooting. They rode around the property in the side-by-side and he spent time in conversation with the boys and I, getting to know us.”

Neither of the boys had ever fired a gun, so Barrentine showed them how to hold a rifle and how to shoot in a safe way.

“We’ll do anything to help them except pull the trigger,” Robinson said. “We want that kid to feel like, ‘I can do anything anybody else can do.’”

Barrentine, 27, is a farmer who grows corn, cotton and soybeans on his land in Rolling Fork. An avid outdoorsman, he said he’s been around nature and hunting since he could walk, and helping with Super Hunt since he was 18.

“With those kids (Chandler and Preston), you’ve got one boy and his brother who’ve never been exposed to these things,” Barrentine said. “So it’s conversations in a deer stand — them asking questions and me telling them this is why an animal does this, or basic nature things they’re fascinated with, and someone like me who maybe doesn’t realize that not everybody knows that kind of stuff.”

It’s much more than just hunting, and more about hanging out with them, letting them know there are people who care and will take a little time to tell or show them something they want to know, Barrentine said.

The families get opportunities to be around other families in similar situations. The hunts and fishing rodeos led by Southern Outdoors Unlimited become a support system for them.

“It does wonders for someone’s mental health. You see there’s someone else going through what I’m going through, so you think ‘We’re going to get through it,’” Barrentine said. “That’s a lot of what keeps people coming back.”

Sillas property owner Paul Holland opened up his land for the Loves to hunt. Nancy Love said Holland was not only a gracious host who cooked every meal and attended to their every need, he allowed his land to be used “that provided the opportunity for Chandler to have this experience, which he’s never had before.”

Love harvested his first buck, his mother said, and the meat from the deer was sent home with them. A traditional taxidermy mount of the deer will be presented to him when it is completed.

Prior to the weekend, Nancy Love was not sure how Chandler would handle the weekend, but he got along well with everyone there and with their help, she said, he fell in love with the outdoors and hunting.

“I wish I had known about this long before now, but I guarantee we will be participating from here out,” she said.

An outdoor field day and Super Hunt reunion is planned for May at Big Black River. For information on this or any other Super Hunt event, visit SouthernOutdoorsUnlimited.org or the group’s Facebook page. 

“I would encourage anyone with a special needs child to participate in this event,” Nancy Love said, “because it truly is amazing and changes lives.”