“We don’t talk about their disabilities … there are no disabilities, only possibilities,” Camo Dreams founder Derek Fussell said.
La GRANDE, OREGON — The first thing 13-year-old Hayden Sizenbach wanted to know, as his guide helped him walk up to the colossal elk he had just shot, was if the hide would be soft to the touch.
“I’ll have to wash my hands,” he said after a quick pet, sparking a laugh from his guide Steve West.
West, a host of "Steve’s Outdoor Adventures" on the Outdoor Channel, called it the elk “of like 10 lifetimes,” holding up the rack to the video camera.
By the time Hayden’s parents made it from the cabin to the field, Hayden was sitting in the grass — dwarfed by the animal — grinning from ear to ear.
“If him and his daddy won the lottery, you wouldn’t know it,” said Lorri Sizenbach, holding out a photo she snapped just before the sun set. “But you can tell from the look on his face, that’s the look he gets when he’s happy.”
In a way, Hayden had just won the lottery. Hayden has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition that weakens muscles. Outlooks vary from person to person, but ultimately the condition is fatal. In Hayden, the disease has progressed slowly, but at times he needs a wheelchair. And despite all the things he can do, he still has missed out on some of the normal kid stuff, “like playing football” or hunting with his dad, his mom said.
The Sizenbachs thought hunting was probably on the list of things Hayden wouldn’t be able to do, as he doesn’t have the strength to hike to the location or pull the trigger, and “we had never known what we could use to help,” Sizenbach said.
That was, until she got a Facebook message from Panama City resident Derek Fussell, an acquaintance from high school, asking if Hayden would want to go hunting.
Fussell is the founder of Camo Dreams, a charity that takes kids ages 9 to 19 with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses outside, mainly on hunting trips, though sometimes they go fishing. The trips, which include family members, are paid for entirely through donations, and Fussell pays his own way.
More than 50 kids have had their camo dreams come true since Fussell, whose day job is as a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, started the nonprofit in 2004.
“We don’t talk about their disabilities … there are no disabilities, only possibilities,” Fussell said, paraphrasing a saying he picked up from a co-worker. “They want to be one of the guys or girls sitting around the fire.”
Fussell and his promotional staff (also volunteers) do all the planning to make the disability fade away during that trip, whether that means modified equipment, creating a wheelchair accessible hunt or carefully planning transportation.
When the Sizenbachs told Fussell that Hayden would like to try hunting, Fussell went all out. Oregon offers a special elk hunting permit for children with terminal conditions, a dream trip Fussell has taken a handful of kids on. Because Hayden qualified for the permit, that’s where Fussell proposed Hayden try his hand at hunting.
“We never would have been able to do it on our own,” Sizenbach said.
The Camo Dreams team taught Hayden how to shoot, helping him pull the trigger. They carried him fireman style when he couldn’t walk. They helped find the elk, though one day while they were out looking, a female elk instead crept up behind them.
“It made me jump,” Hayden said.
And when the guides heard the bugling of a herd of elk in the field, they got Hayden into position and helped him pull the trigger for the hunt of anyone’s lifetime.
Taxidermy is being done on the elk, and all eight boxes of meat — totaling 240 pounds — have shipped to the Sizenbach house. Even after giving half of it to Fussell, the Sizenbachs had to purchase a second freezer for the meat.
And Hayden knows the perfect occasion to share his harvest with his family.
“Can we have some for Thanksgiving?” he asked during the interview.
“That’s a great idea,” his mom said.