Wyoming Disabled Hunters welcomes outdoor sports enthusiasts from across the country
After waiting years for the chance to harvest a big game, Dylan Lessleyoung was amazed at how quickly his pronghorn hunt went from saddle to harvesting a handsome buck.
“It went so fast,” he said after snapping the perfect shot in the foothills near Meeteetse.
It took the South Dakota man nine years to realize his dream. Although the morning hunt was quick, it took many years of dogged search for the right gear to give him the opportunity with his disability.
Just getting Lessleyoung dressed in the morning takes longer than most. He’s a quadriplegic, but that hasn’t stopped his love of the great outdoors or the thrill of the hunt.
It wasn’t until he came to the Cowboy State as a guest of the Wyoming Disabled Hunters that this was a possibility.
The athlete had hunted birds before the near-fatal car accident that broke his neck. He was young, fresh out of high school, and hadn’t yet devoted the time to serious hunting between sports and typical youthful amusements. After her accident, Lessleyoung feared she would never hunt again.
His high school football team had won back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012, with a combined record of 82-0. The tight end was all about teammates and friends — seemingly an all-American story with a trajectory of future success.
However, few lives are as rosy as they seem.
His life, like most, was complicated. To begin with, it is not correct to qualify as an accident the shipwreck which cost him the use of his body under the neck.
“My car accident was actually a suicide attempt,” Lessleyoung said the day before her big adventure. “I was 18 and found myself in a very dark place. I thought that was the only way out.”
Police reports say Lessleyoung was returning home from Mitchell Technical Institute in his hometown of Dell Rapids. He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle. Alcohol was suspected to be a factor in the car crash.
He was distraught after a friend committed suicide in a very public way. Afterwards, he found himself alone after a breakup.
“It was for a girl,” Lessleyoung’s stepdad, Trent Fischer, said. “It was a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Growing up in a single-parent home, he was expected to be the man of the house from an early age in a state that expects men to be strong in the west. Fischer didn’t come into her life until shortly after her accident.
It wasn’t until Lessleyoung was paralyzed that he started to
understand his feelings.
“In the years since the accident, I have learned that there is nothing wrong with opening up and reaching out to people. And it’s OK to cry,” he said.
He now wears his heart on his sleeve and seeks new opportunities to help those who find themselves in a dark place, afraid to share their feelings. He is an important voice at a time when there are far too many suicides among our young people.
A NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24 in the United States. Nearly 20% of high school students report serious suicidal thoughts and 9% have attempted suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. .
Lessleyoung now has a Facebook group called “Wheelchair Adventures”. Her goal is to provide inspiration and information to wheelchair users and hopes to help people with disabilities have outdoor opportunities, knowing firsthand its healing properties.
He understands the healing nature of the outdoors, especially for those who need a helping hand. He wants to use his involuntary disability education to help others feel the peace of a sunrise or the feel of a fish on the end of a line.
He applied to be part of that year’s Wyoming Disabled Hunters outing, and after tagging the non-resident “antelope,” was invited to join the group. Initially completely paralyzed from the neck down, Lessleyoung is now able to move his right shoulder and use his right arm with limitations.
WYOMING DISABLED HUNTERS
Only about a fifth of program applicants are able to join the nonprofit group’s staff on specially guided hunts. The process is a year-long effort by dedicated volunteers who serve to make hunting opportunities possible.
“These people give their hearts and souls every year,” said Board Member Marvin Blakesly.
You could hear the respect he has for his fellow volunteers as his voice was choked with emotion.
“We have nine board members and they work around the clock every year to make this happen for our hunters,” he said.
There are a lot of moving parts that people don’t often see; from landowners to fellow hunters, cooks, lodgers, meat processors, taxidermists, and those willing to persevere through the special logistics required to make a successful hunt for people with life-changing disabilities. They are all volunteers.
“When everything finally falls into place and you see the smiles on [the hunter’s] faces, it’s worth it,” he said.
The organization’s vice president, Bryce Fauskee, who has been a volunteer and a member of the group’s board of directors since its inception, said hunting “is good for the soul”.
“You go out, make new friends and interact with wildlife. And there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you’re about to take that shot.
Fauskee said that without nonprofits like Wyoming Disabled Hunters, which invite hunters to apply from across the country, people with disabilities may never have a chance to enjoy outdoor sports.
“Logistics can be very difficult for hunters with disabilities, so it’s great to have programs that can help them do that,” he said.
Born with spina bifida myelomeningocele, Fauskee could have qualified for one of the group’s hunts, but instead used his talents in the field and in the office as a volunteer.
Raised in a family that deeply respects the great outdoors, Fauskee never let his disability get in the way of a good hunt or backcountry horseback ride. He has been a program director for the Wyoming Services for Independent Living transportation program for 15 years and a volunteer with the group for 14 years.
His parents, Bonnie and Bruce Fauskee also volunteer for the organization.
HUNT FOR TECHNOLOGICAL AIDS
Lessleyoung had moments of panic once in Wyoming. His special gear acted as he tried to zero his .243 rifle and scope. He uses a mount from a company called Be Adaptive. It allows him to aim his weapon using a joystick with his chin. He can only pull the trigger with a device called a “sip and puff trigger”. His scope connects to his phone via Bluetooth and is temporarily strapped to his chair.
Be Adaptive’s goal is to help people with physical disabilities return to the activities they love, such as hunting, shooting, fishing, archery and photography. The company designs and manufactures activity trays, shooting rests for rifles, shotguns, pistols, crossbows and compound bows, adapted fishing equipment, hand controls and lifts for ATVs and much more.
The Wyoming Disabled Hunters team are familiar with the technology and have equipment, thanks to generous donors, that can transport those confined to a wheelchair into the backcountry. But at home, Lessleyoung didn’t find them commonly available. He wants to change that, bringing what he learned in Wyoming back to his home country.
“I would like to eventually implement something like this at home,” he said. “Right now the main focus is just showing people the adaptive equipment that is out there. Many people don’t even know this equipment is available to them or can’t afford it.
Wyoming Disabled Hunters is looking for volunteers for its program. Many positions are needed, especially fellow hunters, said group president Terry Skinner.
Several entities have helped acquire the specialized equipment needed to host the hunts. Alpine Medical in Powell recently donated a Hoyer lift to enable a person to be lifted and transferred with minimal physical effort. The Paul Stock Foundation, Park County Recreation Board, and Wyoming Outdoorsmen were also significant contributors.
For more information on volunteering or to donate, visit wyomingdisabledhunters.org.