- James Swan
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It's no secret that most people who live in urban areas far removed from forests, clean rivers filled with fish, flocks of ducks and 10-point bucks are not avid hunters and fishermen.
For them, the world outside the city is defined by screens — TV, films and computers — and the general media does little to show outdoor sportsmen and women in a positive light, and so without knowing what they are missing, people never bother to try.
Having no contact with fishing or hunting would seem to be especially likely if you grow up with a father who is a drug dealer and a heroin addict who abandons his family, and a mother who lives in a public housing project and falls into in a string of abusive relationships. This was life as a kid for John Annoni, a bi-racial kid who grew up in the projects of Allentown, Pa.
Fleeing from the violence, poverty and abuse, John was raised by his 4-foot, 9-inch grandmother, who he called Mom. His biological mother would come over to take him home with her for weekends, where she lived in a project apartment complex.
Things are pretty tough in the projects. To escape from gangs, drug dealers and abusive adults, John discovered a 12-acre woodlot nearby where he could escape. It had trash strewn about, but it also had animals — squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, etc.
At first the animals scared him, but John overcame that and started to see how close he could get to them — an indication of how there's a hunter in everyone.
An uncle introduced John and a brother to fishing, and they soon were sneaking off to fish in the Lehigh River and at a dam, sometimes catching carp, sucker and rock bass to provide food that the family otherwise might not have had.
John eventually got himself a slingshot. He learned more about hunting from shooting rats at a dump. One day he says that he saw this beautiful bird with a long tail and white ring around its neck walk into the dump. That cock pheasant totally amazed him, and it sowed seeds of him wanting to become a hunter.
John finally did get out of the city. His grandmother got him a scholarship to a Boy's Club summer camp, Camp Horseshoe. There, John learned how to shoot archery and guns. John had seen people with guns before, but usually they were bad guys. He could have gone down that path, but instead, he found he was a good shot and when he came back home he joined the high school rifle team.
He practiced his archery skills and one day, while hanging out in the 12-acre woodlot, he bagged a squirrel. He was hooked.
John made it through high school and went on to graduate from Kutztown University, where he majored in education. His goal was to return to the community where he grew up and give kids there a male role model, like he never had.
John Annoni is now in his 18th year as an elementary teacher with the Allentown School District, and has won many awards for excellence in teaching. Currently, he is a sixth-grade teacher at Trexler Middle School.
He could have been happy with this accomplishment, but he wanted to do more. He wanted to introduce inner-city kids to the woods and hunting and fishing that had been his refuge and salvation as a kid.
So in 1994, John founded Camp Compass, which introduces urban students in grades 5-12 to various outdoor activities, along with teaching personal discipline, offering educational mentoring and providing positive role models. Like its name, the program is design to give kids direction in their lives.
Camp Compass started out as a summer program but it has become a year-round enrichment experience. The camp reaches and molds inner city students by providing them with hands-on experiences and lessons designed to broaden their knowledge of the outdoors. While participating in outdoor experiences, students also learn Language Arts, Science, Social studies and Mathematics, as well as outdoor skills.
This not only helps kids develop self-confidence, but the program dispels many negative myths about sportsmen and conservation. John's been at it for 15 years, but his biggest thrill is still taking kids out hunting, especially for their first hunt.
Camp Compass is unique because it also permits students to spend time with teachers, like John, outside of school and its normal hours. The students are held accountable for their behaviors both inside and outside of school. In some cases this program has become a surrogate activity provider for many single parent and non-conservation minded households.
Starting out in an old carpet company store, today Camp Compass has touched the lives of hundreds of kids who might never have had the chance to wet a line, blast a clay pigeon, or shoot a deer, thanks to help from many individuals and organizations such as: Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, RMEF, Sertoma Club, Jaycees, Lion's Clubs, and Safari Club International, which named John the "Educator of the Year" in 1999.
John's also spreading the message of Camp Compass on radio, TV and countless speeches across the U.S., by himself and as a member of is a member of Mossy Oak's National Pro-Staff.
In the hunting and fishing community we tend to make our heroes be people who have bagged the biggest or most fish and game. John's done his share of that, but more importantly, he's bagged a lot of souls and put them on the road to success in life. It's only fitting that in 2009, John Annoni was named one of the 25 most influential people in the outdoors by Outdoor Life magazine.
You can learn more about John and his life story in a new autobiography that's just come out, From the Hood To The Woods: The John Annoni Story. $20, with shipping if your order it directly from John's Web site. 145 pages, definitely an inspiring story.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.
2hEthan Sherwood Strauss