Nineteen years ago Jeff DeLeon's life took a major turn. A car accident paralyzed the military veteran from the waist down. Eric Keefer's life changed in a similar way when he was paralyzed from an ATV accident. Both men, one a vet and the other not, have something in common. They love the outdoors and they love to hunt. Enter the Central Oregon Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Three years ago the small chapter of like-minded conservationist hunters decided to pitch in and lend a hand to enable them to hunt.
Chapter leaders had various connections with Oregon Adaptive Sports and with Lyle and Mark Jarvis whose family owns a ranch in Eastern Oregon where wild turkeys flourish. Lyle Jarvis is a former Central Oregon educator who moved to the ranch full-time eight years ago. With his son, Mark, who volunteers with Oregon Adaptive Sports, he opens his ranch to disabled hunters like DeLeon and Keefer, allowing them access to hunt wild turkeys. This is the third annual weekend hunt for the disabled coordinated by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
On the evening before their hunt, DeLeon and Keefer are at the dinner table excited about their prospects. Both had scouted birds during the afternoon and had heard several gobbling close by. DeLeon is more concerned about Keefer's hunting success than his own and focuses on what disabled people can do—rather than what they cannot do—in terms of outdoor sports. He prefers not to dwell on the negatives of the accident that changed his life.
Through various equipment modifications, along with individual determination, DeLeon is able to drive and travel on his own. As president of a group called "Veterans for a Mobility Impaired America," he travels the nation with a positive message for all disabled people, including veterans. Vetmia.com has a mission to ensure that veterans have the ability and support to remain competitive in sports with hopes of making the U.S. Paralympics Team.
But DeLeon delivers a message to all who are disabled. "As a veteran, I appreciate all the support that I get. I understand a person like Eric, who is a civilian who got injured, doesn't have the support system that I had as a veteran," he explains. "I want our veterans to understand the blessing we have as vets. It was earned, but we want to pass that along to others." DeLeon feels that it's important to help vets rehabilitate, but says, "We also want them to build relationships in the community to help others."
Mark Jarvis has been heavily involved with Oregon Adaptive Sports as an outdoor instructor since 2010. OAS provides life-changing outdoor recreation experiences for individuals with disabilities on a year-round basis. "We do a summer program which is bicycling, kayaking, and fishing. Over and above that I do this hunting program on my own, but I tied it together with OAS because that's where I find a lot of participants who come out here and hunt. It's good for people like Eric. It gives him a chance to do something he hasn't been able to do for quite a few years," Jarvis says.
Keefer uses a specialized wheelchair that allows him access to rugged terrain. Its special tracks move easily over limbs, around trees and up hills, and Keefer drives it well. Brian Hewitt of Bend is Keefer's guide on the hunt, and he locates a large group of turkeys within a mile of the Jarvis ranch. Working with Mark Jarvis, Hewitt positions Keefer and begins calling the birds. At first the return calls sound distant, but soon their calls become louder. Finally, a few heads pop up about 40 yards away, and the birds begin circling Keefer. After several minutes, they conclude that a clear shot is still impossible, and the party decides to return to the ranch, grab breakfast, take naps, and re-group for an afternoon hunt. With a few more adjustments to his specialized chair, along with a willing bird, Keefer's luck would change in the afternoon with a successful hunt and a large turkey that will grace his family's table.