Group shares a love for Mississippi outdoors

By The Associated Press

COLUMBUS – Jay Stokes remembers the thrill of killing his first deer when he was 10 years old.
Now, Stokes is now making sure hundreds of young people can feel that thrill.
“I was 10 and I still have the shotgun shell at my mom and dad’s house,” Stokes said. “Hunting was a passion. I was always going with my father or with a buddy and his dad. Hunting teaches you so many things. The main thing it does is it gives you an incredible amount of self-confidence.”
With this love for hunting continuing through his teen years, Stokes found himself friends with several fellow hunters at both East Central Community College and later Mississippi State University.
While at MSU, Stokes and roommate Justin Wilkes organized a hunt for some foster children from the Palmer Home in Columbus.
“At the time, I was working for Dr. (William) Eastman, an orthodontist in Starkville,” said Stokes. “He had some private property in Brooksville and it was fast becoming overrun by deer. Through the Deer Management Assistance Program, I was allowed to help him maintain his deer population.
“That was the perfect part-time job, because it meant I could hunt when I wanted to. Through helping maintain his deer population came the idea to have some kids come out and help us hunt.”
The initial hunt took place in 2003 and involved five children.
Now, Break-Away Outdoors, a nonprofit organization started by Stokes, takes youth from all over the state on fishing and hunting trips on a regular basis.
“We wanted to create something for kids who didn’t qualify for similar programs,” said Wilkes, the organization’s secretary. “We saw a gap between organizations like Make-a-Wish or Catch-a-Dream, which provide wonderful experiences for children that are terminally ill.”
With the growth of Break-Away Outdoors, more recognition is being earned. In the March 2012 issue of Field and Stream magazine, Stokes and his companions were named as a conservationist of the year. The magazine honors three persons or groups each month and 27 each calendar year.
Steve Scott, director of the Columbus campus for Palmer Home, said the home has forged such a strong working relationship with Stokes and his organization.
“My first hunting experience took place when I was 28,” Scott said. “To be able to give these kids, these opportunities at 9 or 10 years old is amazing. Jay is a wonderful guy and he has a true passion for young people. The hunting and fishing trips are something the kids look forward to every year.”
Hunting trips are not an ordinary day in the woods. The participants go through hunter safety courses, with the purpose of the activity being both educational and fun.
By exposing young people who might otherwise never hunt or fish to the outdoors, Stokes hopes that a motivation will be built to help conserve the state’s natural resources.
“Gun safety is a big issue for us,” said Stokes. “We pair adults with the young hunters. If a girl is hunting with us, a woman is alongside, helping them learn.”
By exposing young people who might otherwise never hunt or fish to the outdoors, Stokes hopes that a motivation will be built to help conserve the state’s natural resources.
“We want this to be a learning experience. From start to finish, it is a big day and we know we have done our best job at impacting their lives.”
Stokes said his organization sets itself apart by catering to as many youth as possible.
“Many groups set up an activity for one person per weekend,” Stokes said. “If you do that, you touch four people per month. In one weekend, if we help five (people) hunt, we have had a bigger impact. Everyone who works for Break-Away Outdoors is volunteering their time and services. Like everyone else, we try to spend as much time as we can with our families on the weekend.
“Thus, we like to think bigger and better. You may do fewer events, but involve more people. Groups will contact us and ask us to set up a hunt or a fishing trip. The Palmer Home in both Columbus and Hernando is our base. However, we are involved with church youth groups, as well. We are not going to turn any kid away.”
Eastman eventually sold the private property in Brooksville. The new owner allowed Stokes to continue to hunt the property and later helped secure the financial backing to launch the nonprofit organization.
“We first started talking about creating an organization in 2009,” Stokes said. “It took about a year to pull everything together, from a legal standpoint. We started Jan. 1, 2011. Now, we are looking for a clientele. I know how it is going to work. Once you get a clientele, then you have a waiting list. However, I am looking forward to this challenge.”
Each year, Break-Away Outdoors organizes five or six youth activities.
The main deer hunt takes place the first weekend of November during Mississippi Department of Wildlife’s annual Youth Weekend. The group also participates in the annual National Wild Turkey Federation’s Wheeling Sportsmen. In June, a youth fishing trip took place, in conjunction with Mississippi Catfish of Columbus.
“We have done squirrel hunts, duck hunts, deer hunts, dove hunts and fishing trips,” Stokes said. “Right now, we are in the process of putting together a long-range plan. You really can’t plan too far in advance because of the weather. However, you can get a good idea of some of the things that you want to accomplish.”
As the numbers and trips grow, the expenses do, as well. Stokes hopes that by establishing an actual nonprofit organization, more people will be able to step in and provide assistance.
“We had ample donations when we started and fewer kids,” Stokes said. “When the economy hit its slide in 2006 or 2007, we had a struggle. It was like I had to stick my hand out more and more. Fortunately, so many step forward.
“When we went nonprofit, I was encouraged to bring a board on. My board members are all college friends of mine. We are all involved in organizing functions and make sure everything is in place. If we do something, we are going to do it right.
“We have come a long way since Justin and I sat around planning a hunting trip. When we were living together at State, I came in one day and said ‘I have this idea, but you have to help me.’ He was there for me and we have been hard at it ever since,” Stokes said.
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Online:
Break-Away Outdoors, http://www.breakawayoutdoors.org