- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2015

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) - When longtime Panama City resident Derek Fussell started taking disabled and seriously ill kids on annual hunting trips 11 years ago, he didn’t realize his effort would grow into a nonprofit charitable organization spreading its impact across the country.

But that’s what Panama City-based Camo Dreams has become.

Since its 2004 beginning, Camo Dreams has taken kids on 28 hunting or fishing trips. Most recently, Camo Dreams helped 12-year-old Jason Smith Jr. of Oklahoma harvest a huge elk in Oregon this summer. Jason’s trip was filmed by “Steve West’s Outdoor Adventures” for the Outdoor Channel.

“It really was a dream come true,” said Jason’s father, also named Jason.

Camo Dreams is a testament to people who face the trials of life with courage, and who reach out those in need.

The idea came to Fussell after his mother faced and beat cancer for the third time; first Hodgkin lymphoma, then skin cancer, followed by throat cancer. It was a struggle. Because of the earlier cancer, she already had undergone all the radiation a person can have in their lifetime, so the throat cancer was treated with major surgery, which was successful.

During those trying times, people reached out to him and his family.

“We had a lot of support and I decided then to do something to give back,” Fussell said.

As someone who enjoyed the outdoors, he decided to give disabled or seriously ill kids the opportunity to share that passion, and Camo Dreams was born.

He organized the first trip in 2004 and sponsored one trip per year for the first few years.

“It kind of exploded from there,” Fussell said. “I didn’t have any clue as to what it would become. I just knew I wanted to give back to kids who were not able to get to do the things that I was able to do.”

In recent years, that one tripper year has grown to as many as nine trips in a single year. Trips have ranged from hog hunting, to fishing to alligator hunting. Not every hunt results in a kill - this is hunting and fishing, after all. But every trip has created a memory of a lifetime, Fussell said.

Fussell is president of the nonprofit organization, but he and others associated with Camo Dreams are volunteers. There is no paid staff. Professionally, he’s a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but he said he keeps his job separate from his volunteer efforts with Camo Dreams. He paid for his own airline tickets and expenses for the elk hunt.

That no one draws a salary is not lost on Jason Smith Sr.

“Anybody who wants to devote just about all of their free time to do something for others like that just tells you what kind of person Derek is,” he said.

Many of the families - usually the child’s entire family is invited - that are chosen for a trip heard about Camo Dreams through news coverage and TV programs. Nationally-aired television shows “Buck Commander” on Outdoors Channel or “Crazy On Outdoors” on Pursuit Channel have done segments on Camo Dreams.

In fact, Jason Smith Sr. was watching outdoors shows with “little Jason” when he heard about Camo Dreams. That prompted an application, although he figured it was “a shot in the dark.”

After receiving an application, it’s up to Fussell to arrange the trip. Every eligible child who has applied has been taken on an adventure.

“We have accepted every qualified kid’s application,” Fussell said. “If there is not enough time or locations to hunt during a season we schedule for the next season.”

Some of the “camodreamers” are from the Panhandle, but the program has sponsored trips for kids from across the Southeast.

Jason’s elk-hunting trip took almost a year to plan, beginning with Fussell being contacted by local resident Tombo Martin, a star of “Buck Commander,” who told him the 5,000-acre Ponderosa Ranch in LaGrande, Ore., was willing to allow a kid free access for a weeklong elk hunt.

To qualify for an Oregon “Govenor’s Elk Tag” permitting elk hunting with a gun during bow season, the youngster had to be terminally ill. Looking at Jason’s application, Fussell saw the child has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder whose victims have a life expectancy of no more than 25 years, Fussell said.

To afford the adventures, Camo Dreams relies on donations. The contributions pay for special equipment the kids may need, such as the gun mount Jason used to shoot from his wheelchair, taxidermy, food, lodging and travel for the child and family. Fussell goes on the trips too, but pays for it from his own pocket.

The generosity of hunting ranches and fishing guides helps. All the hunting trips have been at private hunting preserves, except for the gator hunts, which were on public property.

Camo Dreams also gets a price break from a taxidermist so the kids’ trophies can be mounted, usually after the meat is harvested for food.

Jason’s elk is at the taxidermist, but when it’s finished, it will hang on the wall of the Smiths’ home.

“It’ll stay up on the wall forever and we can look at it 60 years from now and remember that’s the time little Jason shot an elk in Oregon,” his father said.

___

Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, https://www.newsherald.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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