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Operation Orphans

For 45 years, this nonprofit has helped disadvantaged youths discover the great outdoors.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

For days after his first deer hunt last year, Joel De Leon, then a student at a vocational school in New Waverly, talked endlessly about the experience.

“I had never even thought about hunting,” recalls De Leon, now 18 and employed with a drywall company in Dallas. “But I tried it and had a lot of fun. I couldn’t stop talking about it afterward!”

De Leon is one of more than 16,000 youngsters who’ve participated in deer hunts led by Operation Orphans over the past 45 years. The nonprofit organization, based at Camp Gene Ashby near Mason, links disadvantaged children with ranchers who open their land for hunts at no charge.

For many teens, it’s their first real outdoor adventure.

“We have a lot of kids from inner cities and the Rio Grande Valley who’ve never been to the Hill Country,” says Lyla Crouch, who has supervised the 360-acre camp for 22 years with her husband, Jerry. “They’ve never seen white-tailed deer or other things we take for granted here.”

The camp is named for the late Gene Ashby, a state game warden who saw that Mason County had too many deer. In 1960, he asked ranchers from around the area to allow orphans from children’s homes across the state to hunt their land. They agreed, and Operation Orphans was born.

During the 2004 season, 304 children led by 202 volunteer guides hunted on 59 area ranches. The program organizes six hunts a season. One hunt is for girls only. The children, aged 14 to 18, arrive at the camp on a Friday night, learn about hunting safety and then leave early the next morning with an adult guide to hunt deer — and sometimes exotics — at a designated ranch. They’re also fed and given warm clothing. Any animals they harvest go to their homes.

An extensive network of dedicated volunteers and contributors keeps Operation Orphans going year to year.

“Organizations in Mason make lunches for the kids, and last year a Houston car dealership donated 50 name-brand shirts,” says Tom Hewitt, first vice president. “We also have volunteers who donate work, such as plumbing.”

Rancher Steve Miller has hosted young hunters on his property near Doss for 17 years. “Like all Hill Country land, ours has too many does, so this has been a good outlet for us,” he says. “We tell the kids what they can shoot, and they follow the rules. It’s been a great experience.”

The young hunters think so, too. “They return home with a better attitude and a willingness to succeed,” says Bill Tomlinson, after-care manager at Gulf Coast Trades Center. “It’s a great opportunity for them to get away and do something fun.”

According to Tomlinson, the term “orphan” is outdated. Today, “most children living in state facilities, foster homes and schools have been abandoned by parents or removed from abusive environments,” he says.

Meanwhile, De Leon, who harvested a buck and two does last fall, is determined to get back into a deer blind this season. “Hunting is definitely something I want to show my kids someday,” he says.

The program has expanded to include two fishing camps in June. For more information, visit <www.operationorphans.org> or call Operation Orphans at (325) 347-6745.

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