Seventeen-year-old Dakota Helmuth loaded his .243 and peered into the woods on a misty winter afternoon in Georgia.
"If I wasn't here, I'd be playing video games or watching TV at home," said Dakota, who was diagnosed with brain cancer 10 years ago.
But thanks to people like hunter Tim Brock and an organization called the Outdoor Dream Foundation, Dakota was 18 feet up a hickory tree eyeing a wide deer trail for any sign of movement.
"You hear that?" said Brock in a hushed voice. He was 15 feet away in another tree stand.
"Yeah. What is it?" said Dakota, who turned his head to the left, toward the sound. He recently lost hearing in his left ear due to hydrocephalus, water on the brain.
"It's a bird," said Brock. "And he's telling all the deer that we're here!"
Dakota laughed, and settled back into his sling seat. The smile stuck with him. Even if the deer wouldn't be choosing this trail for the next half hour, this boy was enjoying being in a holler, holding his rifle, with his friend and mentor, on top of the world.
Stepping in to help
That's a much different outlook than he's had recently. Dakota has endured many rounds of brain surgery, chemo and radiation.
"These kids go through hell," said Dakota's dad, Michal Helmuth.
"After he got sick," said his mother Renee, "he was timid, withdrawn. He'd mope around. But this has brought out the best in him."
"This" is Dakota's life-changing encounter with the Outdoor Dream Foundation. You've probably never heard of it. It doesn't get publicity like the larger Make-A-Wish Foundation. But the Anderson, S.C.-based volunteer group is one of many grassroots hunting wish-fulfillment organizations that have popped up in North America in recent years. Many exist because Make-A-Wish stopped fulfilling hunting-related dreams. Make-A-Wish says they are too dangerous, especially when the kids are on medication or are sick.
Hunting legal game animals is no problem for the Outdoor Dream Foundation, United Special Sportsman Alliance based out of Pittsville, Wis., the Rocky Mountain Dream Foundation of St. George, Utah, and Dream Catchers USA, founded in Arizona, to name a few.
These under-the-radar groups are nothing short of famous to hundreds of ailing kids who have been treated like they are the only thing that matters. And they say they'll never forget their hunter friends who gave them hope in dark times.
Dakota, the 17-year-old from Georgia, for example, now hunts and fishes almost as much as he wants to. The Outdoor Dream Foundation has opened up the great outdoors for him, and it's opened his eyes to future possibilities.
Georgia Conservation Sgt. Brian Keener met Dakota when the boy was first diagnosed in 1998. Keener took him trout fishing and recommended him to the Outdoor Dream Foundation. The low-key group headed by Brad Jones examined Dakota's medical diagnosis, interviewed the family and listened to the boy.
Dakota's dream was to simply hunt and fish.
Here today, here tomorrow
Soon after, Dakota's family heard from the Outdoor Dream Foundation. They told them to pack up for a redfishing trip with a guide on Florida's famous Mosquito Lagoon. He caught nice reds and sea trout near Daytona Beach.
A few weeks later, Dakota was in a tree stand in Perry, Ga. With one well-placed lower-lung shot, a big doe was down. In a traditional rite of passage, new friends smeared the deer's blood on his face. Hero photos were taken. Lifelong relationships cemented.
Big fish. Big game. Wish fulfilled.
End of story.
Well, not exactly. Perhaps the best part about the Outdoor Dream Foundation is that they don't let go. They make sure the boys meet big-hearted locals who will continue keep their dreams alive.
"Compared to other groups, the Outdoor Dream Foundation is there long after the initial trip," said Sgt. Keener, who frequently hears about the international and national groups that help Georgia kids. "I've seen it firsthand."
That's where Brock, who now hunts regularly with Dakota, comes in. Brock, a heavy set, heavy-equipment operator who lives near Dakota's family, read about the boy on an online hunting forum.
The Outdoor Dream Foundation posted a note titled "Teen with brain cancer wants to hunt deer."
The response was remarkable.
Within just two hours, four hunters came out of the woodwork to offer to give Dakota the run of their deer camp, family land or secret spot. Within a few days, scores of other hunters stepped up. The offers keep coming in.
"I've got a farm in western Kentucky he could hunt."
"A deer camp south of Cumming."
"A bow-only spot in Cumming."
"I could take him to Dawson Forest."
"I've got 189 acres in Elbert County."
"If the other falls through, I will be happy to take this young man to the woods. I hunt in Carrollton, Ga., and would be glad to put him in a stand."
"1,000 acres in Cherokee."
"I hunt in Paulding County, and it would be my pleasure to take him, if he hasn't already been taken care of."
"I hunt in Pulaski County and would be happy to take him with me. I only have a couple of trips this year, but if Pulaski is close enough, would be honored to help."
"I hunt Oconee National Forest and could gladly help him kill some deer."
And another comment:
"I love how quick all of these 'horrible' hunters are to help out someone in need. You guys make me proud to be associated with you."
These are only a few of the many messages posted on the Georgia Outdoor News site.
"He has a lot to look forward to now," said Renee. "All the fishing and hunting and getting together with these great guys. These hunters were absolute strangers. They asked Dakota, 'Do you need land? Deer stand? Gun?' They were full-force, wanting to help this kid. I cried whenever I read those messages."
Plans for the future
After a recent hunt, Dakota and Brock put away their weapons and leaned on the side of Brock's car. They talked about the day, and speculated why they didn't see any deer.
It was dark. The air was turning cold and the smell of burning wood made the hunters think of warmth and dinner.
But Brock had to go back to work the night shift at the Waste Management facility. He works at least 60 hours a week, sometimes a lot more, to support his own family of five.
Asked to estimate how many hours Brock had put in helping him kill a deer, Dakota was speechless.
"I don't even know how to answer that," the boy said.
Between them, they figured they've hunted about 15 full days since they met in September.
Brock laughed and changed the subject.
"So I'll pick you up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning," Brock said to Dakota. "Get to bed early so you don't fall asleep in the stand."
"I'll be there," said Dakota.