Devin Davis felt the tug of the streets. He hadn’t yet given his life to a gang, but the possibility was there.
Wendy Davis worried about the future for her son, who had just become a teenager.
“My son was a big boy,” Wendy recalled. “Being a single mom and having this bigger child, I was really afraid that he would get in with gangs.”
Then a family friend gave Devin a bow. He had never shot a bow before, but it kindled an interest in deer hunting.
Eager to explore any avenue that might lead her son away from the streets, Wendy called the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to see about buying Devin a hunting permit. She learned that a person first must complete a bowhunter education course before being allowed to hunt with a bow.
Wendy searched for a class that was about to start. The only one she could find was in Gretna.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have to drive all the way from South Omaha to Gretna.’ I was complaining a little because I had to drive so far.”
But distance was a minor obstacle where her son’s well-being was concerned.
Loren Katt of Gretna taught the course, and Gary Brunberg came in from Omaha to help teach one session. Katt and Brunberg were always looking for kids who would benefit from the Game and Parks Commission’s mentored-youth archery program. Devin was a prime target for what the program had to offer.
“Maybe I would have found the same thing if Devin had taken another class somewhere else,” Wendy said. “I don’t know. But when I got him into the mentoring program ...”
Her voice trailed off. After composing herself, she continued.
“These men are so amazing,” she said. “They devote so much time to somebody else’s kids. It brings tears to my eyes — tears of joy — for what they’ve done for my son.
“We got real lucky when we stumbled across the mentoring program. I have a good kid. He stayed out of trouble and graduated. I honestly feel it’s because of this program. I think it kept my son off the streets. It made a city boy be country, which is amazing.”
Devin is one of about 600 boys and girls who have taken part in the mentored youth deer hunts during the 19-year history of the program. He is now 19 — two years out of the program — and he remains grateful for the guidance the mentors provided him.
Brunberg was his primary mentor during the four years Devin spent in the program. The longtime archery educator recently received an email from Devin that read, in part: “Gary, you have been the greatest male influence in my life. If I could be like anybody, it would be like you.”
“When somebody tells you that,” Brunberg said, “it means something special to you. And all the mentors get that type of comment from the parents and kids.”
Devin’s appreciation of Brunberg and the other mentors in the program is sincere.
“In my personal opinion,” Devin said, “if I hadn’t started the mentoring program I probably would have ended up in a bad place. I didn’t run around with the best of crowds. I was just a young, dumb kid. The mentoring program definitely set me straight. I met a lot of really cool people that impacted my life dramatically.
“I’ve graduated, moved into my own apartment and am starting my own life now. When I get older and more set with my life, I plan on being a mentor in the program. I want to help out. I want to give back because of how much it has given me. Hopefully, I can have an impact on some young kid’s life like Gary made an impact on mine.”
Devin and Wendy talked at length about the mentoring program, Strangely, the subject of hunting deer — the primary purpose of the program — never came up.
“When you get out there, you want to kill a deer,” Devin said. “But the life experiences are more valuable than actually getting a deer. More times than not, I went out there and didn’t get a deer. But it still was the best day that I had.
“It’s more about the experience — getting to hang out with the mentors, the mentees who are great kids, great friends. It’s much more than actually killing a deer. You can have a great day without even seeing a deer. It’s a great program. I honestly believe it changed my life.”
There are 17 mentors in the program — a number that has not changed much in recent years. Nearly 120 youngsters from the ages of 12 to 17 participated this past deer season.
The need for more mentors is obvious because only two kids can hunt with a mentor at one time. A mentor first has to be a certified bowhunter education instructor. Then he or she must undergo a thorough background check.
“Not everyone can be a mentor,” Brunberg said. “Not everybody has the patience to deal with these 12- and 13-year-old kids. And you have to have a background check. Obviously, if you’re going to have your kids go with someone out in the woods, you definitely want to make sure he or she is a top-quality individual.”
Jim Douglas, Game and Parks director, said, “The vetting is heavy. We do extensive background checks — far more than just the usual criminal background checks.”
Aaron Hershberger has directed the program the past seven deer hunting seasons. Current mentors come from the Grand Island, Kearney, Ogallala and Scottsbluff areas.
“But the demand, by far, is in the Omaha-Lincoln area,” Hershberger said. “Our largest group of mentors — and kids — is from Omaha and Lincoln. Our goal is to get as many kids into the program as we possibly can. We’re looking for some mentors in the northeast part of the state. More kids around the Norfolk area want to get into the program.
“Interest in archery is very high right now,” he added. “And interest in the mentored youth archery program is the largest it has ever been. However, our access to good quality areas that allow the program to realize its full potential have not kept up.
“To meet demand and allow other youth to be part of something this special, the program needs properties that provide season-long opportunities to scout and hunt during the archery seasons. We are actively searching for more — we know it’s out there — and we are always looking for help with this access issue.”
For safety reasons, mentors and the kids are the only ones allowed to hunt on property when it is being used for the mentoring program.
“We need to have land that we can take these kids on and not have other hunters walk in on us,” Brunberg said. “We need more landowners to open their property to the program.”
Brunberg and Steve Woitaszewski of Lincoln have been involved in the mentoring program since the first deer hunt was held in 1995. Katt came aboard as a mentor the following year. Several others have mentored for many years.
What is the greatest joy that Brunberg has received from the program?
“If you’ve ever looked at the face of a young man or young woman when they are standing over the very first deer they have taken, that joy — that thrill — can never be duplicated,” he replied. “They don’t know if they should laugh, cry, jump up and down or yell yahoo.
“Later, after we drag out the deer and transfer it to their parents’ vehicle, they tell the story. But it’s not the same as being there at that moment. I have been blessed over the last 19 years to have seen numerous kids with their first deer. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed when you see that joy in these kids’ faces. It’s awesome.”
Mentors spend far more time with the kids than just the mornings and evenings when they hunt.
“It’s a true mentoring program,” Hershberger said. “It’s all about relationships. With archery, the learning curve can be great. It takes a lot of preparation and practice to be able to kill a deer. It takes discipline, and part of that is practice — acquiring more skills as they build toward the hunt.”
The mentors play a vital role in that process.
“We help them with their shooting form and with their equipment so things are tuned and matched,” Brunberg said. “Not everybody has the money to buy fancy arrows, sights and releases.”
Full Draw Archery, an Omaha archery shop, along with several archery clubs including Golden Arrow, Ahamo and Lower Platte, join members of the Nebraska Bowhunters Association in donating and collecting clothing, boots and equipment that youngsters can use. Mentors Kevin Markt and Jeff Micek oversee that operation.
Practice begins in August and, although the archery season runs from Sept. 15 through Dec. 31, youths can hunt through Jan. 18.
“After a kid is in the program five years,” Brunberg said, “the mentor actually becomes like part of the family. The parents have unending stories of how the kid wants to get his homework done so he can do this or that. It’s amazing how the program affects kids’ lives in aspects outside of hunting.”
Mike Nordmeyer of Omaha learned the value of the mentoring program from his son, Seth, who participated for the first time this past fall. When Seth returned from his tree stand, he recounted the highlights of his evening hunt.
“He watched a couple of does from his tree,” Nordmeyer said. “One gave him ample broadside opportunities to shoot, but he didn’t. I asked why he didn’t take the shot.
“He said the mentors specified the effective range he could shoot, based on his qualifying. He was not sure of the yardage to the doe, and he did not want to risk wounding a deer or shooting beyond his effective range.
“After telling him how proud I was of his decision,” Nordmeyer continued, “I asked where he learned all of this. His response: ‘From the mentors I’ve hunted with, and I don’t want to let them or the animal down by taking a risky shot and wounding a deer.’”
Matt Merriman was one of five youngsters who took part in the first mentored deer hunt in 1995. He, two brothers and a sister have been part of the program over the years.
Their father, Rick Merriman, is an avid bowhunter and takes his kids with him on hunts.
“On many occasions,” Merriman said, “my children have pointed out better and safer hunting techniques for me to use that they learned from their volunteer mentor and the program.
“The mentors are always kept up to date on the most current safety practices and laws to foster the highest ethical practices.”
Harrison Jaeger, who bought a recurve bow when he entered the program, thought mentor Woitaszewski would shoulder most of the labor that goes with hunting.
“I thought it would be me sitting in a tree stand and I would not have to do any of the work,” Harrison said. “But this year I moved tree stands, put tree stands out and helped plant food plots.
“I have learned many new things and life lessons in this program, and I got my first deer with a bow.”
During the sports show, youngsters and adults are invited to shoot on ranges staffed by members of the Nebraska Bowhunters Association. The 5-yard range for kids and the 12-yard range for adults can be found in the lobby of the CenturyLink Center.
“It’s free,” Brunberg said. “Simply come and shoot. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is providing all the equipment, the targets and Kevlar curtains. An anonymous donor is providing the floor space.
“Between 350 and 400 people shot bows and arrows last year. We anticipate a lot more will shoot this year. It’s a good way for the Nebraska Bowhunters Association to put its foot forward and make itself known to the public.”