Hunter safety program has involved more than 400 middle schoolers

Monica Bickerstaff, the program’s assistant coordinator, presented Yoder with a plaque and a Henry .22 rifle at the Sept. 14 meeting of the USD 410 Board of Education.

“They had to pick somebody, and I’m thrilled about getting that,” Yoder said. “But any of the others could have been chosen for it.”

By “the others,” he means Anne Janzen, Len Coryea and Becky Yoder, who have joined him as certified instructors since the mid-1990s.

In fact, Yoder said he had written a letter nominating Janzen and Coryea, fellow staff members at USD 410, for the award. Ironically, as he found out later, Janzen wrote the letter nominating him.

Neither letter writer was aware of the other’s action.

What is more important to them than personal recognition is the impact the program has had on the 400 or so HMS students who have participated in it since they assumed leadership for the 1995-96 school year.

“We’re not there to teach how to shoot a gun or how to stalk game,” Yoder said. “We’re there as a hunter-safety course. It’s there to teach kids how to be safe around guns and to learn about conservation.”

Yoder said what has surprised him over the years is the widespread appeal of the program among students.

“We get a lot of girls who take the course—and a lot of kids you wouldn’t think have any interest hunting,” he said. “But they want to learn about what is safe about being around guns.”

One of the first

The local program actually preceeds the present team of instructors. Yoder credits former middle school science teacher Wilbur Fast with getting it going in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

“We were one of the first schools to offer it,” Yoder said.

At the time, most hunter-safety courses were community-based programs—and many still are. They came into being when the Kansas Legislature required hunters born after 1958 to pass a safety course and receive a hunter-safety license before being allowed to hunt big game.

The program is part of the Kan­sas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Because he hunted on his own land, Yoder didn’t take the course until 1994, when his three oldest sons asked to go through it so they could hunt on other public grounds. He and wife Becky signed on too.

“By that time I was middle school principal, so (instructor Gary Schultz of Peabody) said, ‘Why don’t I make you an instructor so you can help out when I retire?’”

The couple went on to become certified instructors.

About the same time, Hills­boro Middle School started a club program, where students pick an activity of interest and participate in it during school time every other Friday.

“In talking to Len Coryea and Anne Janzen, who are both avid hunters, they expressed a desire to do a hunter-safety course and become instructors,” Yoder said. “That first course, I was able to evaluate them, and do the paperwork so they could become instructors.

“Len and Anne are outstanding co-educators,” he added. “All of them bring a different expertise to the course: Len, with his background in Pennsylvania and the type of hunting he did back there; Anne Janzen grew up in western Kansas and hunted with her brothers and family, so she knows that female perspective.”

Becky Yoder, meanwhile, focuses on the first aid and water-safety components of the curriculum.

“They all have something they bring that’s really valuable,” Evan Yoder said.

In the early years, the foursome would invite various community volunteers to talk to the kids about a particular area of interest or expertise—whether it be bow hunting or an aspect of wildlife conservation.

Because of legal liabilities, the state now requires that all instructors be certified.

“That really cut down the number of people you can get to help, which has hurt the community programs,” Yoder said. “That has made the courses in school all the more valuable, so you can get certified instructors.”

Recent developments

Through the years of their involvement, the program has usually involved sixth-graders—a student must be 11 years old before he or she can receive a hunter-safety certificate.

Participants numbered 25 to 30 most years. But with declining enrollment, the classes became smaller. That led Yoder last year to invite students from Peabody to join the local program.

“Last year they brought 12 to 13 kids from Peabody in that group, including six eighth-graders,” Yoder said. “This year we have 12 kids. It’s been kind of neat to have those kids here; they get to meet our kids and it’s neat to see how they interact.”

During the course, students complete a workbook of 14 chapters, which culminates in an outdoor walk-through exercise in early December where kids demonstrate what they’ve learned about zones of fire, climbing over a fence with a firearm and other aspects of hunter safety and conservation.

In recent years the location of the walk-through has changed from the county fairgrounds in Hillsboro to the country club south of Peabody, which Yoder describes as a great location with its lake and nearby public hunting grounds.

As part of that event, Bob McVey of Peabody has created a series of animal and bird “pop-ups” that are triggered manually by adult volunteers as students approach.

The pop-ups give students a more realistic opportunity to identify not only the type of creature that appears, but also whether it’s male or female—a key factor in whether the animal or bird is legal game.

The course culminates a week later in a written test that includes some 55 true-and-false and multiple-choice questions. Students who pass with a score of 80 percent or better receive their hunter-safety certificates.

“We want all kids to pass,” Yoder said, and added that 95 percent or more do. “We want them to be aware of the safe handling of guns and learn about conservation.”

A target for cuts?

Yoder is eager for the public to know more about the hunter-safety course, and its importance, because it and the other club programs at HMS could become targets for elimination if budgets continue to tighten.

“I hope this is one thing that doesn’t get cut because I think it’s valuable,” he said.

As long as the program continues, he is ready and eager to lead it.

“I’m not as avid a hunter as some people are, but I enjoy the teaching aspect of this and the safety side,” he said. “Those kids are so anxious to get those certificates that it’s an exciting class to teach.”

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