LA CROSSE, Wis. — Ray Howell was on the streets at a young age, fleeing one foster home after another, in and out of juvenile detention. It was a man named Tom who changed his life, and, decades later, led him to the Kicking Bear Foundation.
A nonprofit organization founded on building positive relationships through outdoor activities, faith and mentorship, Kicking Bear holds more than a hundred events annually nationwide and hosted the Kicking Bear Adventure Day recently at La Crosse Archery.
About 600 people attended the event, with 30 volunteers and mentors teaching kids basic archery and hunting skills through 3D archery, crossbow shooting, tomahawk throwing, a TechnoHunt and target practice. Covering safety, handling skills and technique, trained instructors brought the outdoors in for the morning.
"Archery is a sport anyone can do," Howell told the La Crosse Tribune . "You don't have to be an athlete or the sharpest knife in the drawer. It's a confidence builder."
Howell's introduction to hunting came at 13 when, after running away from his fifth foster home, Tom, a police officer, promised he would find Howell a good home if he just stayed put and offered to take him along on his father-son hunting trip.
"He showed up for me and in one weekend, he changed my life," Howell said. "I never had a dad to put his hand on my shoulder ... but I wouldn't change anything. I would never know what life is like for a kid (at risk) if it hadn't happened to me."
Two decades ago, Howell left his career to focus on Kicking Bear, which is free to kids and their families and offers camps and hunting expeditions. Mentors commit to two years with their mentees, who include "at-risk, single-parent, underprivileged or any kid who wants to be in the outdoors."
Kicking Bear director of operations Austin Siewert of La Crescent partnered with Takobie Robinson, 14, after meeting the teen on a youth hunt with the Boys and Girls Club of La Crosse.
"God put me in his life at a point where it was really crucial for him to have someone, to take him outdoors and show him a better way of life," Siewert said.
Robinson, who was surprised with his own bow and arrow from the organization last spring, says his archery skills are "perfect," calling his first time holding a bow "unbelievable."
"Oh yeah, I'm (a pro) now," said Robinson. Helping the novice shooters during the event, he advised them to "Get out there, do your best and have fun trying."
Deatra Green, who has eight kids between him and his wife, brings them to every family event, having heard about Kicking Bear through the Boys and Girls Club after the family moved to La Crosse from Illinois 18 months ago. Green connected with the organization's mission.
"Their background on helping kids without fathers, that stuck to me," Green said. "I was a kid without a father. To me, I think those are the kids who are most damaged. Growth to me is so important for my kids, and I make a point to get them out there in front of new faces and opportunities to do something different. Where they're from, guns mean murder, killing people. The kids are getting a different look at guns with hunting."
Green's sons Artis, 9, and Avonte, 11, both joined Kicking Bear on a hunting expedition in October, Artis shooting the first deer of the day and Avonte following suit that evening.
"It felt awesome," Artis said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the La Crosse Tribune.