Dana Schweers is at a good place in his life.
He’s 24, has a good career as a sheet-metal worker, great things to do on is time off and he’s happy with the prospects of his future.
He knows it could have been different.
“I look back at some of the friends I had (about 10 years ago) and look at them now, they do drugs, they drink a lot,” said Schweers. “I knew I couldn’t go that way and keep being able to go hunting and fishing.”
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Schweers was one of the first area kids to get involved with the Pass It On Outdoors Mentors program, which works with Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters groups to get kids outdoors.
As his luck had it, Schweers was matched with Mike Christensen, Pass It On director.
That meant a lot of time target shooting, hunting and fishing.
“I don’t think I’d be the same without it,” Schweers said. “It was so much fun, and I learned so much.”
He credits the program with his ongoing love of about anything outdoors, the place he spends most of his time off.
It’s been about 11 years since Christensen started the program that quickly got support from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks , and many state and national conservation groups.
What basically began as a way to pull more local outdoorsmen and women into mentoring programs is now widely scattered across Kansas and covers a variety of outdoors activities.
Christensen said last year the program hosted trips for fishing, camping, target shooting, birding, hiking, canoeing, many kinds of hunting, fishing-rod building and studying insects outdoors.
“Our goal this year is to provide outdoor opportunities for about 3,000 kids,” Christensen said.
All of the outings are well-organized and staffed. Many Big Brother or Big Sister pairs attend, or unmatched “littles” are paired with adult volunteers.
Christensen is especially proud of 15 to 20 hunts they sponsor annually, some with up to 30 youth participants, and the dozens of times they’ve taken groups to target ranges. The trips are as much about education as recreation.
“Kids today are no different than when I was young. They all love the outdoors and all have a fascination with firearms,” Christensen said. “We teach them to do things the right way the same as I was taught to do things the right way. A lot of kids aren’t being taught that now. The kids are the same, but the world has changed.”
Pass It On kids must complete an approved hunter-education course before they can take a weapon afield, where they’re mentored every step of the way.
One of the main things they learn, Christensen said, is respect for firearms, other people, the animals they hunt and themselves.
Eric Mitchell, 25, attended many Pass It On shooting and hunting events.
“Man, just to get your (hunter-education card) makes you so proud, you know you accomplished something,” said Mitchell, a sales manager for a security firm in Oklahoma. “When you’re out there, you know it’s a big responsibility to have a firearm in your hand. You mature mentally and understand you could hurt someone. When you shoot a bird, and you get to eat it, you know you earned it, and you respect it, and know what a firearm can really do. It was all a very positive experience for me. It was a lot of fun, and it made me better.”
Christensen said Mitchell and Schweers are two program success stories. One of his earliest participants came from an area where he’d had three murders within a block of his house.
Christensen said he knows of one who eventually ran afoul with firearms.
“Last I heard he was in prison, involved in a burglary that went bad and a murder,” Christensen said. “He got in the wrong crowd, and sometimes then bad things happen.”
And at least some of past Pass It On participants are trying to help other kids stay out of the wrong crowds, and learn valuable life lessons outdoors.
“I still do all of it to this day,” Schweers said of fishing, hunting and shooting. “I have a (younger) brother and he knows I’ll take him out whenever he wants to go. When I get him out there, he really enjoys it.”