Life hunt for deer brings adventure to sick boys
by Charlene Scott Myers
Children who are terminally ill often suffer pain, isolation from peers, and fear of the future, but a program called Life Hunt has brought new excitement and adventure into their lives.
More than 50 area businesses and 60 patrons support the program that was launched in 2001 by Tim C. Schaller of Larned, who with friends and supporters hosted an Archery Deer Hunt for seven disabled hunters that year.
"I really was gung ho about it, but seven handicapped boys were too many to handle at one time; three of them were in wheelchairs," Schaller explained from the basement of his home, surrounded by bear skins and mounts of deer, antelope, and other wild animals.
Schaller, the father of five and grandfather of four, next designed a program for boys who had life-threatening illnesses, and in 2002, he secured two young hunters from the BuckMasters American Deer Foundation Life Hunt Program.
Every year since then, boys with cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and other diseases have participated in Life Hunts, accompanied by their dads. One hunter, who was only 10-years-old, already had undergone 54 operations for a genetic bone growth disorder.
"We have learned as much from the hunters, as they have from us," admitted Schaller, a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Parish and the Knights of Columbus in Larned. "We all now understand the value of giving of oneself to others less fortunate.
"One boy from Philadelphia, who was born with no legs and one arm – which only had one thumb -- got his deer with a great shot, using his thumb to pull the trigger. He told us, 'The greatest sickness or handicap in life is a bad attitude.' That boy was not handicapped!
"On another hunt were two brothers with cystic fibrosis whose sister died two weeks before they joined us," said Schaller, who grew up on a farm southwest of Kinsley. "One of the brothers gave me a bracelet in her memory that said: 'Fear nothing in life!'"
In 2005, Life Hunt expanded to three hunters, but shortly before that hunt, "One young hunter broke his leg due to his bone disease, and both of the other hunters had relapses of their illnesses and could not come for the hunt," Schaller recalled.
"We lost nearly $5,000 in airfare and transfer tags that were not usable, but we were able to come up with two other hunters, one of them a Kansas resident."
Due to the efforts of Matt Stucker, a lieutenant in the Law Enforcement Division of the Kansas Department of Wildlife Protection, and State Rep. Mitch Holmes, Life Hunt now can receive permits independent of what Schaller calls "a complicated and expensive process."
The three-day hunts of Life Hunt are conducted on 2,000 acres of land owned by Schaller and leased from the Gatterman family in Pawnee County. Life Hunt recently secured three permanent fiberglass ground blinds from Texas at a bargain price of $1,500 each for the boys. In former years, hunts were conducted from tents.
"In 2006, we had four life hunters, and two were from Kansas," related Schaller, who also hunts for bear, mountain lions, and antelope in Canada, Alaska, New Mexico, and Colorado.
"We were saddened by the news that one of our hunters from the previous year, Cory Smith, died on Nov. 18, 2006. We held a memorial service for him. Cory had been able to enjoy his trophy before his death, as it was delivered by uniformed officers from the KDWP."
Schaller called the 2007 hunt "truly blessed," describing how "two very deserving young men, one with Leukemia and one with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, both harvested trophy deer on the last moments of the hunt."
Hunters for 2011 were Cole Croteau, 14, from Newman, Georgia and Adam Settles, 12, from Wilmore, Kentucky. Cole, who has Cystic Fibrosis and undergoes three treatments a day, was accompanied by his father, Eric. Adam has Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative condition that weakens his muscles. His dad, Lynn, also attended the hunt.
"Both of our hunters were from the American Deer Foundation Life Hunt Program," Schaller explained. "We have an annual dinner in December for the hunters, helpers, and all who support the hunts."
Among his helpers are Schaller's wife, Doris, his brother Jay of Kinsley and friend Gordon Schartz of Larned who cook for the hunts, his son Randy of Kansas City, Kansas, who picks up the boys and their family members at the Wichita airport, his next door neighbor Matt Stucker, who delivers the deer to a taxidermist, and Michael Houser of Larned, who serves as a guide along with Schaller on the hunts.
"This is not about me," said Schaller, a graduate in architecture from Kansas State University who has his own construction business. "This is about the boys – and the many people in the community who support Life Hunt.
"Life Hunt has been a huge success, and has given us all many hours of emotional laughter, tears, sweat, and a great sense of accomplishment in making dreams come true."