McKean Minute: The Fleeting Gift of Charity

Every year about this time, I help host an outdoor-skills field day for the kids in my town. Youngsters rotate between stations where they cast a hookless fishing plug at a hula hoop on the ground or shoot BB guns at silhouettes of prairie dogs or shoot light-drawing bows at 3-D targets. We let the older kids shoot clay targets with donated shotguns.

You’ve probably attended these events yourself, or helped host one as a member of a conservation organization or local rod-and-gun club. If you have, you know they’re draining, but they pay back the work and tedium of planning with wide grins, whoops, and laughter of the participants. We generally culminate our field day by burning some hot dogs and raffling off a tableful of gear, including a gun or two.

We part with the full feeling that we’ve helped pass on our love of shooting and the outdoors to the next generation. But we’re full on empty calories. One of the revelations of the last decade has been that the kids who attend these events, or who participate in youth hunts, are the kids that would have become hunters or anglers anyway, because of their parents’ passion for the activities. What we’ve missed, in these field days and in our collective marketing of outdoor recreation, is the kid whose parents don’t hunt or fish. But those kids are the least likely to participate in a field day.

The other realization is that when we give away opportunity, or gear, we short-circuit an important link to “owning” – both literally and figuratively – the gear or the moment. When we hand a kid a gun that was paid for and chosen by someone else, we take away years of anticipation that adds value and appreciation and makes a gun much more than a tool. When we give an elementary student a can’t-miss hunt, we deprive them of the richness, won through time and effort, that gives a successful hunt much of its meaning.

Does this mean we should stop opening gates for beginning outdoorsfolks? Hell, no! But it means that if we want to build a lasting relationship between a beginner and a lifetime of experience, we shouldn’t mistake charity for accomplishment. Instead of giving things and instant achievements, let’s give opportunity, a pathway that leads to even greater things and achievements.

When it comes to mentoring, the classic aphorism fits: Give a man (or boy, or girl) a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they eat – and buy fishing licenses, and teach their own children to fish – for a lifetime. Let’s teach our kids to fish.

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