Funny how what’s right is so often politically incorrect. Such is my opinion when a sixth-grade teacher asks me to check out how he is using hunting and firearm training to “save the lives of inner-city kids.”
To meet this very politically incorrect teacher I drive to downtown Allentown, Pa., a city of 120,000 an hour north of Philadelphia. As I wend my way to Trexler Middle School to meet John Annoni, the teacher who asked me to come, I see graffiti on buildings and wonder if some are gang symbols as I’ve been told there are four active gangs in this middle school.
When I arrive John shakes my hand and we step into a crowded hallway. He asks a group of girls if they’re coming to Camp Compass Academy after school. When they giggle and say “yes,” John wants to know if they will stay together to be safe.
We go into his empty classroom. There is a stuffed mallard up front. In the back there is other taxidermy he uses as props as he teaches science. We sit on top of the half-sized desks of sixth-graders and he says, “I bet you’re thinking, ‘Can this black guy really be helping kids by running a hunting-and-fishing nonprofit?’”
“A lot of students wonder at first, too,” he says. “New ones sometimes ask me, ‘What are you?’ I think they’re looking for a role model they can relate to by skin color, so I reply by asking them, ‘What do you think I am?’ After they guess, I tell them, ‘I’m half black and half white but I look Spanish and I eat Chinese food.’ They laugh. I let them all know I’m just like them.”
He rolls on, “The few chances I got to hunt as a kid helped me so I figured it could help others. So 17 years ago I started taking a few kids out. We now have 60 students. We have a waiting list of 300. I don’t have the resources to take more right now. We’re a nonprofit. Every dime we raise helps these kids.”
“Wait a second,” I ask, “you’re running this program out of this school?”
He gets this big grin and says, “Not anymore. I started it here, but then the school officials told me if I’d make it a fishing-only program they’d back me. They just couldn’t let me do the hunting and shooting stuff, they said. I couldn’t do that. I know what helped me as a kid. So a friend found another place for us. It’s just 300 yards from here. Come on.”
We walk in the back door, pass displays of tiles and rugs and head into a classroom with four long tables, lots of chairs, a projection screen and two toy guns. John picks up one: “This is a shooting simulator,” he says. “Everyone is going to get a chance to shoot ghosts today.”
Half the tables already are filled with students dutifully doing a written assignment. They wear hunter-orange Camp Compass Academy T-shirts. More students are showing up; they know just what to do. They get the assignment and go to work.
I step into an adjacent room where Russ Reigel, a retired social studies teacher, is inputting scores into a computer; spread sheets track each student’s grades. The students are required to share their report cards with the staff. Russ, John and a few other volunteer teachers then look for weak areas and tutor the students. If students don’t get their grades up they won’t get to go hunting or fishing. Most students have to be in the program for two years before they can go on a hunt. In the meantime they learn firearm safety and about the wildlife they’ll hunt.
Back in the main room I sit at a table with a few students and ask if any of them hunted before they got into Camp Compass Academy. They all say they hadn’t even thought about hunting. Now they all want to go.
Jay, a freshman in high school, says she had no idea what an elk or antelope was before getting into the program. “Now I know gun safety and how to shoot,” she says. “I have respect for wildlife because of hunting. When I got my first deer I couldn’t believe how much its parts really look like the scientific drawings.”
“Did you eat your deer?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says, “venison is tasty.”
When I ask if anyone at home hunts all the kids say “no” and Jay adds, “My mom is afraid of guns. At first she thought this was really weird but now she thinks it’s cool.”
I stand up. A young man, a graduate, has come in and I want to talk to him. His name is Tracy. He’s 19 years old. He shakes my hand and tells me, “I come here to get away from the streets. I like huntin’ because when you’re out there you’re safe.”
John steps over and puts his hand on Tracy’s shoulder and asks, “You doin’ all right with that job?”
“Yeah, good for now,” says Tracy.
John is called away and I ask Tracy what the program did for him.
“Kind of saved my life I guess,” he says quietly.
I find that this has happened a lot over the years. Camp Compass Academy students have even put some of their stories on the website twomillionbullets.org, a fundraising initiative for the academy.
Later, after John makes certain everyone has a safe way to get home, I ask how this success story can be replicated.
“I’ve developed a model that can be molded to fit other areas and schools and that can work for conservation groups,” he says. “I want to help start other initiatives that don’t just get kids out for an event, but that work with them to turn them into the mature adults we need."
(To learn more, pick up John Annoni’s book, From the Woods to the Hood, or find him at campcompass.org.)