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Nature for Everyone
Photos and text by Jeff Kurrus
Sportsmen Assisting Nebraska's Disabled Sportsmen teams volunteers with disabled participants seeking time afield.

SANDS co-founder Dave Burgess and volunteer John Swinarski mark yardages before beginning their afternoon deer hunt at Boyer Chute.

I’ve been told by more than one hunter that if they could stand a deer back up after they shot it and watch the animal walk away, they would do so. For many outdoor enthusiasts, the challenge of making the shot, or seeing the strike of a fish, is the most gratifying part. Harvesting the animal is just icing. Yet what happens if a person is never able to experience these moments in the first place? What happens if a person who adores their time in nature has these moments completely taken away by circumstance?

For people yet to experience nature as well as those whose hunting trips have been cut short by their disabilities, there is a program in Nebraska dedicated to providing support. It is known as Sportsmen Assisting Nebraska’s Disabled Sportsmen (SANDS), and it seeks to provide the opportunity for all people, regardless of their disability, to gain access to the outdoors where their own challenges of making a shot, or seeing a fish strike, can be fulfilled.

History of SANDS

“‘Disabled hunter needs assistance’ was what I originally wrote on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s (NGPC) message board,” said SANDS co-founder Dave Burgess. His wife was unable to push Dave and his wheelchair through the areas he wanted to hunt. Without help, he was at a loss how to continue his outdoor ventures until he received his first response, then another. “In the end, about a dozen people offered to take me out,” he said. Little did he know where his simple request would lead. At first, Burgess admitted, the main focus was on him.

Mason Freel, who has cerebral palsy, fishes from a pier at Zorinsky Lake.

One of the people that responded was Mike Freel, who was interested in helping Dave because Freel’s daughter, Mason, has cerebral palsy. As Mike and Dave began to talk, they spoke not only of getting Dave reacclimated to the outdoors, but also getting others involved. “There had to be other people out there who were in the same boat,” Burgess remembers thinking. “Then I found out there were at least 29,000 people in Nebraska with disabilities in 2003.”

Dave continued to research ways to construct a program where able-bodied volunteers could match up with disabled hunters needing assistance. Then he found out about an organization in Illinois called Far Cry that had a disabled-assistance program. Realtree and Buckmasters, two of the outdoor field’s largest companies, also had disabled programs. So Mike and Dave, after compiling their findings and constructing a plan of their own, took their idea to Greg Wagner, who runs the NGPC’s Omaha office and suggested they take it to Jeff Rawlinson, who was the Commission’s outdoor education specialist at the time. Like Wagner, Rawlinson favored the idea, and he presented it to the NGPC’s board of commissioners and it was approved in May of 2005, only three months after Burgess and Freel first spoke. Dave originally suggested they call it the Outdoor Nebraska Buddies program. Then Rawlinson suggested the SANDS acronym.

The main goal Burgess and Freel wanted to accomplish was provide an avenue for volunteers and the disabled to contact each other. Currently there is a link on the Commission’s web site that does just that, which is exactly what Burgess intended. But the program has grown even more than Burgess thought it would.

SANDS member Don Rydburg (left) is congratulated by mentor Tyler Huffaker after Rydburg killed his first deer in more than a decade.

The first year saw more than 40 participants and 50 volunteers signed up. Now, there are more than 78 participants and 165 mentors whose varied interests include hunting, fishing, camping, boating and other outdoor activities like astronomy.

“I don’t tell people what activity they must do,” said Burgess. “And I don’t pick and choose who takes them. Let’s be real — If I tell you you’re going to go with this person over here, and you can’t stand them, you might want to spend the day choking him instead of fishing with him. Instead, here’s this guy’s name and phone number. You contact him, arrange it, and build a rapport between the two of you. You will have done more than start a hunting or fishing event. You will have started a friendship.”

But Burgess’s work still isn’t done, sending emails to a legion of people and organizations in an effort to not only find volunteers to hunt with but also sponsors for the program. Through these efforts the Bass Pro Shops in Council Bluffs allowed SANDS to run a mechanical bull at their 2006 Fall Classic, with all proceeds going to the SANDS program; Michael Cox, promotions manager for Bass Pro, donated over $1,600 at their spring classic; free hunts have been donated by the National Wild Turkey Federation, Nebraska Safari Club and Pheasant Bonanza to participants of the program; and Whitetails Unlimited has sponsored one of the SANDS participants, Don Rydburg, with hunting gear. While Burgess is pleased with the sponsored hunts and extremely grateful for the ability of his members to participate in them, he still understands the cornerstone of the program.

“I don’t want SANDS to just be donated hunts,” he said. “I want there to be an outlet where mentors and disabled people can set up their own hunts just like everyone else. I researched what people were doing in other states and 90 percent, if not more, were donated hunts. I don’t want it like that forever.

“Nebraska is the first state to have this program. There are other states that have privately owned organizations that charge you to join and hunt. Nebraska’s is a free service. There is no fee for the equipment I lend out, including fish finders, ground blinds, tackle boxes and hunting supplies. All you have to do is buy your own tag. If you can’t do that, I try and find funds to have that tag bought for you.”

Volunteer Intensity

The first noticeable thing about John Swinarski is the intensity in his eyes. Once you meet him, you’ll see where that intensity is directed.

“Someone needs to take him fishing,” he said about a man with Parkinson’s disease he had just met at a SANDS picnic last fall at Omaha’s Zorinsky Lake. “I don’t have a boat but I can take him somewhere off the bank.”

Swinarski had first asked Greg Wagner about helping people with disabilities a few years back, but at the time there wasn’t a program of that type in Nebraska. “Then I got on the Internet one day, saw the SANDS link and started talking to Burgess. We worked a fishing event with disabled kids in the Millard area. I didn’t realize there were so many kids who needed help. We had over 100 children at Zorinsky Lake that day in May of 2006. We also hosted a fishing tournament at Carter Lake that matched up disabled participants with mentors.”

Swinarski became interested in SANDS because his mom has limited mobility, eventually losing a leg last year. He has places close to Omaha where he can take people hunting, and they are not second-rate areas. “I saw 35 deer yesterday afternoon, including two respectable bucks, at the place I have permission to hunt,” he told me last fall. When asked what chance the SANDS participant he was taking would get a shot, he said, “We’ll get him a deer if he can hit it.”

I was then able to go with Burgess and Swinarski on a hunt at the Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge. What interested me most about the hunt, and the most fascinating aspect of the SANDS program, is the amount of work the volunteers put in. The entire time we were in the woods, even while I interviewed Burgess, Swinarski was hunting, trying to get Dave a shot. As we talked, John was steadily scanning the front of the blind. At the end of the hunt, I asked John how he had so much free time.

“I just use vacation time to make these trips work.”

The 14-Year Deer

“I want you to shoot one more off the sticks,” Tyler Huffaker told SANDS participant Don Rydburg after Huffaker had made him a set of handmade shooting sticks to use as a brace on their hunt at Boyer Chute. The two met after Tyler signed up to be part of the SANDS program after meeting Dave Burgess at a booth he was running at the Council Bluffs Bass Pro Shops. Tyler then started calling people who had registered online for the program, but was not having much luck getting a response. ‘Maybe next year,’ he’d hear, or ‘Not right now.’ “I basically gave up on the program,” he said.

Then Don Rydburg called asking for help, and Tyler jumped at the opportunity. A few months later, Tyler was helping Don line up a crossbow Whitetails Unlimited had donated to him. They also gave Don the money for his tag, a knife and the first camouflage that Don has ever owned.

“Don, you’re not missing up and down, but you’ve been consistently to the right. I think you’re pulling instead of squeezing,” Tyler told him. After making a couple more adjustments to Don’s equipment, Tyler loaded another bolt into the crossbow, one of the things Don needs help doing, then had him shoot again. “Dead center,” Tyler said. “Whenever you shoot, remember to squeeze, not pull. It’s not a shotgun, Don.”

Lani Baker poses with guide Brian Frost after killing her three-bird limit at Pheasant Bonanza near Tekamah last fall.

I caught up with them again the next day. Only this time, they weren’t lining up a crossbow. They were telling a story, one they had already told before and would most certainly tell again.

“I looked out in the grass field right before sunset and saw a doe. Then I saw two more does right behind her. I hadn’t seen a deer all day up to this point, and now the front doe was walking right toward me. I looked where Tyler had marked 30 yards for me, where he had stuck an arrow in the ground,” Don said.

“We can shoot past 30 yards but we wanted to keep it under 30,” Tyler added.

“She was just on the other side of the marker, then she turned sideways. I aimed at the front shoulder, using the sticks Tyler had made me. Then I squeezed the trigger.”

“I heard a pop,” Tyler said, who was hunting thirty yards away from Don in another blind Burgess had lent them. “I started walking toward him, got a shot of my own at one of the other does, missed her, then realized I had only brought one arrow with me. The doe just stood there watching me.” Tyler paused, shaking his head and smiling.

“We found his arrow covered in blood about 10 yards from where he shot. Close to that, we also found my arrow. It was clean as could be.”

“Then Tyler made me wait 25 minutes,” Don interrupted. “I thought those 25 minutes were never going to end.”

“By then it was about dark,” Tyler said, “so we started calling everyone we could to come help us.”

Don’s brother and nephew met up with the two, and a friend of Tyler’s and his wife also joined the search. While each person searched for blood through the woods, Don stood at the last place they had found any sign. “We lost blood twice and we were hands and knees looking,” said Tyler. “By the time we found the deer lying dead in a creek, it was 10:40.”

“She took us for a hell of a ride,” Don said.

“Yea, after walking into trees, bushes and stickers, my clothes were done,” Tyler said. “My arms, chest, and legs were rubbed raw.”

Loading a crossbow is one of many tasks where SANDS volunteers can aid their disabled hunted partners.

Don, with his diamond willow cane and very limited mobility, still managed to walk the entire way with them. “I couldn’t let someone else finish what I had started.”

Where they had started was in a different spot than they had been that morning. “We changed our blind placement from the first morning after picking a spot on paper before ever seeing the place. Deer had our blind pegged from 40 yards away. This new spot was nice and secluded, backed off the road a bit. We were better hid and Don had a shooting lane both ways. In the end, we saw seven deer at our new spot.”

When asked about the SANDS program, Don shook his head. “I told myself, if I ever got a chance, I was going for it. I got hooked up with SANDS and the following year a friend of mine said I could have an old crossbow of his. But that old crossbow is nothing like what you see here. You had to jerk the trigger.”

“It had a 30-pound trigger,” Tyler said. “And past 20 yards, it just wasn’t accurate. So I talked to Burgess, and he talked to Kevin Harrington from Whitetails Unlimited. Next thing you know, Don, Dave, Dave’s wife Danielle and I are sitting on Don’s front porch putting his new crossbow together.”

“This was the first time in 14 years that I’ve hunted or killed a deer,” Don said.

“It’s just a start,” Tyler said. “We have a lot more hunting to do.”

A Blind Interview

I had the opportunity to sit in a blind with Dave Burgess on a Boyer Chute deer hunt last year. We talked about SANDS, his physical conditions, and a host of other subjects while we waited for a deer to pass by.

“The degenerative disk disease in my back started with me walking with a cane, then walking with a walker, then using a wheelchair to get around. There’s nothing that can be done about my back,” he told me. “The rest of the disks in my back will slowly deteriorate and my spine will crush itself. The little bit of bending and mobility I now have will lessen. Physical therapy won’t work. I’m not even a candidate for surgery any longer.”

When he finished telling me that, he reached into a bag he had brought with him. “But a doughnut always helps,” he said, pulling out a box of Krispy Kremes and offering me one.

I declined, explaining that doughnuts give me heartburn. “That’s awful, must be stress-related,” he told me, downing a pastry. Then, “Are you good at making distances out?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” I said.

He pointed at a series of objects outside the blind, “Over there, those three trees, about 30 yards?”

Lani Baker prepares to shoot at a flushed rooster during her hunt at Pheasant Bonanza as guide Frosty watches.

“Sounds about right,” I told him, and he continued to point while I gave my thoughts on the various landmarks he pointed toward.

“I haven’t gotten a deer in six years,” he told me a bit later. “But it’s all about getting out for me. The thing is, I just need a bit more help than most. People volunteer their time and skills but some are worried about working with a disabled person. They don’t know what to do — Is it okay to ask them how they got hurt? I need help carrying stuff, cleaning a deer, but I’m pretty self-sufficient.”

Plus, Burgess told me he expects volunteers to bring their own weapons. “There’s nothing worse than sitting there, helping someone out, and not being able to participate yourself. We don’t want a babysitter, we want someone to hunt with,” he said.

I asked Dave what it took to be a part of the program. “What people need to realize is I never ask someone what their disability is. I don’t want to accept some and not accept others. As far as I am concerned, if you’re 75 years old and can’t get around very well, that’s a disability. Disability is the inability to do what you were once able to do. If there is something you want to do and can’t do by yourself, as far as I’m concerned you have a disability. And SANDS is here to help.

“A house is your home. It’s not a prison. That window is quarter-inch glass, but it’s just as strong as a prison bar if you can’t get out. And what kind of life is that? There’s no enjoyment there, there’s no living. You’re existing. If you have a chance to get out and meet people, you become part of a community.”

Dave then offered me another doughnut. Again I declined. “We got a rule at the house that if you’re hungry, it’s your fault,” he said. Then he told me, “It comes back to this: People everywhere have needs for various reasons. The people helping those with needs are the real glory of SANDS. If not for them, the whole concept is a pipe dream, something that could have never come to fruition.”

A Walk To Remember

“We volunteered for the Outdoor Buddy program that used to be in western Nebraska,” said Lani Baker, a participant of the SANDS program. But she’s no longer a mentor, now she’s a disabled participant needing assistance. “At that time, I was healthy. I would whitewater raft for days on end in desolate rivers. I always thought I was going to be this strong, agile woman. I was a workaholic, then a light switch flipped. It wasn’t even piecemeal. All of a sudden, it was a major, major adjustment.”

In 1998, Lani was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. With it came shaking, trembling, and muscle spasms. Sometimes she can’t talk, can’t walk, and her multiple arthritic joints have led to 24 surgeries and an artificial hip. When she told me about her history, we were on an arranged hunt at Pheasant Bonanza, a private game farm near Tekamah. “I’m just starting with the excuses early,” she said.

Due to Lani’s physical conditions, she had not been pheasant hunting for 10 years, but had won a drawing for the guided SANDS hunt in Tekamah. Once there, a crowd of people surrounded her, including her husband Larry, Mike Freel and her guide, Brian “Frosty” Frost. “Because of MS, I have issues with memory. I do lots of word association. I have a girlfriend that has a jackass named Frosty. That’s how I will remember you,” she told her newfound friend.

“Thanks a lot,” Frosty replied.

Someone asked if she wanted to ride through the fields on a golf cart during her guided hunt, and for the most part, she declined. “It’s a good day today,” she said, missing birds early but having the opportunity to kill roosters later in the morning. With each step she took, a throng of people walked behind, each one hoping her next shot would find its mark. For while Burgess said that he didn’t want SANDS to become a program relying on guided hunts, he couldn’t have frowned at this. A person smiling through the day, and crying by the end, whose first pheasant hunt in 10 years had yielded so many good feelings.

But she also knows what hunts like this do to her body. “I’ll sleep for a day or two after a day like today,” she told me. “Twice a year we kayak the Niobrara and it’s the same thing there. But I’m willing to experience the pain to do what I want to do. I can’t imagine curling up and stopping.”

By the end of the morning, Lani’s good fortune of winning the drawing was over. And she was definitely spent to the point that her husband had to support her from falling by placing his finger through her back belt loop as she walked. But to everyone else, it was just a husband walking by his wife, who for that day was just another hunter in the field. The way she wanted it.

Future of SANDS

While Dave Burgess’s to-do list is long, he understands how much longer he would like it to be. “It’s dropping a pebble in a pond,” he said.

Dave Burgess's mission with SANDS is to ensure that all people have the opportunity to participate in outdoor-related activities.
“I’ve been contacting the DNR resources from surrounding states, even Washington D.C., trying to get support from everyone in the nation. I would like to see this program as a nationwide service offered through each state. I’ve also been working up satisfaction surveys to see how we could make our own program better. I just haven’t totally figured it out yet.”

Burgess said that much of the work left to do with the program has to do with the volunteers themselves. He knows there are a lot more people out there wanting to help than those who do. “If a person is thinking, ‘I don’t know how to deal with a person with a disability,’ I tell them to not be afraid. People with disabilities are just like able-bodied individuals. They’re just going to do things a little different. That’s the only difference. Make the phone calls, get to know each other, start to build those relationships. The help needed could be as simple as carrying a rifle, helping to reel in a fish, or casting out. Little things are the things we need. Personally, I need help field dressing game. We all need help from time to time.”

When asked what Dave’s ultimate goal was, he responded without hesitation. “Right now, SANDS means Sportsmen Assisting Nebraska’s Disabled Sportsmen. One day I’d like it to stand for Sportsmen Assisting the Nation’s Disabled Sportsmen.”

That’s a lofty goal, but SANDS definitely has the right person for the job.

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