Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

September 26, 2014

Hunt With Heart fulfills dreams of children with heart problems

Filed under: Fishing & Hunting — Freddie Keel @ 8:27 pm

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When most people think about terminally ill children having their wishes fulfilled, they think about the Make A Wish Foundation and trips to Disneyland.

Here in Texas, those wishes turn to guns and hunting.

“Make A Wish won’t do hunts,” noted Toby Kroeger, founder of Hunt With Heart, a nonprofit organization he started with his wife to help pediatric heart patients fulfill their dreams of hunting big game.

Although he is a believer in the Make A Wish mission, he has discovered an unmet need of helping older children with life-altering health issues fulfill their desire to go hunting.

The idea for Hunt With Heart began unexpectedly several years ago when Kroeger’s wife Crystal asked him to help out at a camp sponsored by her employer, Texas Children’s Hospital. Crystal works with cardiac patients at the hospital and Toby is a lieutenant with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Each year the hospital and the It’s My Heart Foundation hold a weekend camp for heart patients between the ages of 8 and 12 called Camp Pump It Up. The camp was in need of male volunteers and when Crystal asked, Toby didn’t have the heart to say no.

That first year Toby was a counselor in a cabin with a bunch of boys, including a special youngster named Nick. The two of them formed a special bond.

“Each year after that the hospital made sure they put him in my cabin,” Toby said.

Then came that fateful day in 2011 when Toby was visiting Nick in the hospital after a surgery. Nick asked him what he was going to do that weekend and Toby told him he was going hunting.

“When I said it was hunting season, the inside of the room got quiet and still,” he said.

Nick’s mother explained that it was his lifelong dream to go hunting. He played hunting video games and talked about it a lot. Living with a life-threatening heart condition, however, made the idea of going on a hunt little more than a dream.

The Kroegers felt the need to make Nick’s dream come true. Crystal began searching for a place for Nick to go hunting and made a cold call to Beaver Creek Ranch, located northwest of Bryan/College Station. When Crystal explained what they wanted to owners Jim and JoAnne Elzner, “they were equally as excited about the opportunity to introduce Nick to hunting as we were.”

A month later the arrangements were made and Nick was able to get his trophy. After that experience the Kroegers knew they couldn’t stop, so they incorporated Hunt With Heart as a nonprofit organization and set up a board of directors.

With coordination between Texas Children’s Hospital and Camp Beaver Creek, Hunt With Heart held its first camp with six children and their parents, mostly fathers. Initially the camp was for children 13-18 with serious heart disease, but it was later expanded to include children with any life-threatening or life-altering health issues.

The first outing was life-changing for everyone involved, especially the Kroegers.

“What can we do to make it more than a one-weekend experience?” Toby asked Crystal.

They decided to make the participants lifetime members in the organization. They hold annual Christmas parties, clay shoots and other activities. Beyond that, they discovered that the camps bonded the families in special ways.

“The dads are getting to be there to do something special with their kids and they’re getting to meet other dads in the same boat,” Toby said.

Outside of camp, they have become a huge support network and are often there for the children when they wind up back in the hospital.

“This isn’t just an organization they’re joining; it’s a family,” Toby said. “When they become part of our organization they become part of our family.”

Toby said the count is up to 33 camper families in their larger family, but it extends beyond that. Other hunters volunteer as guides and doctors at Children’s have extended their services, making them vital members of the organization. Other businesses and organizations have become members of the extended family, including John Guidry, a Sealy taxidermist.

The Kroegers met Guidry three years ago at the Texas Trophy Hunters Extravaganza at what was then Reliant (now NRG) Center in Houston.

“They needed a taxidermist to help with some of their stuff,” Guidry said.

The more he learned about the organization, the more his heart went out to the kids. He now does all of their mounts, primarily skull mounts.

“I don’t do it to receive anything back for it. It’s a 100 percent donation on my part,” he said.

His only request is to be present when the trophies are presented to the young hunters. He usually presents the mounts to the children at the Christmas party.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me because my family has never had to deal with this,” he said.

More recently, Hunt with Heart has partnered with Bellville Meat Market for the processing of the meat. Toby said they do it at a significantly reduced cost. Quite often a portion of the meat is donated by Hunt With Heart to other organizations.

Another supporter is Game Guard Outdoors, which provides camo clothing and gear to the hunters.

Toby said everywhere he turns he finds more people and businesses wanting to help out. Because of that generosity, the camp is provided at no cost to the hunters and their families.

The camping experience is much more than just a hunt. Before the campers fire their first shot, they are taught gun safety and test on a range with small-caliber rifles, working up to the ones they will use on the hunt. Other activities include archery, fishing and taking ATV tours of the ranch.

When they hunt, they usually go after exotics stocked on the ranch, usually goats and deer, though some water buffalos have been taken. The hunts are held twice a year and other ranches are becoming involved. One of these is the Emerald T Ranch near Columbus.

At two camps, there were children on the national heart transplant list who could not be more than an hour away from the hospital. In order for them to be able to hunt and not be removed from the list, Burt’s Condstruction provided a helicopter for the weekend.

Though all of the hunts and all of the children are special to the Kroegers and their supporters, two youngsters on their hunt last spring really stand out. Rylan, 11, and 15-year-old Macy were awaiting hearts. Both enjoyed the weekend and Rylan had an exceptionally fun time hunting for Easter eggs while wearing bunny ears.

A week after the hunt, he wore the ears into surgery to receive his new heart. While he was recovering at Texas Children’s, Macy received hers and they recovered together.

Hunt With Heart has done more than just help children fulfill dreams of big game hunts. The foundation they started has helped send one member to college, met financial needs for some of the families, provided temporary housing assistance for a family from San Antonio needing to be near the hospital, helped provide Christmas gifts, and even helped cover some of the funeral costs for children who lost their battle with heart disease.

While Toby said the hunts mean everything to the young hunters, he can’t put a price on what it does for the families. He said the parent-child bonding that takes place is incredible, but more than that, the connection of families with similar interests and issues and the support network they have formed is a benefit he could never foresee and now can never do without.

“When they join our organization, they join our family,” he said.

For more information: www.huntwithheart.org

By JOE SOUTHERN editor@sealynews.com

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