Each summer, I look forward to attending the NRA International Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I get to spend time with the participants and their families. This summer, we found ourselves back at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico for the 2011 YHEC. Hundreds of young hunters and their families traveled from all across the country to compete in a series of eight events designed to test hunting skills and knowledge. While I am always impressed by the abilities of our YHEC participants, each year I am blown away by their dedication, commitment, sportsmanship, and their desire to preserve the sport of hunting.
It's no wonder why these young people are so incredible - talk to any of the parents and coaches that accompany them and you'll see the same dedication and positive attitudes in the adults who help these young hunters become skilled hunters and exceptional leaders. This year, participants from North Carolina, Oregon, and Louisiana dominated the leaderboard, taking home top honors in both the Individual and Team categories in the Junior and Senior age groups.
I choked up several times during the awards ceremony - not because of the excitement on the winners' faces, but because of the pride shown by the parents and coaches. Tears of joy streamed down their faces as they watched their children accept the awards they had worked so hard to acheive. Photographing them proved difficult as I could barely see through my own tears.
In the fours years I've been to YHEC, I've been able to watch these kids grow and mature as people and as hunters, seeing their skills develop year after year. Because of this, seeing the winners from 2011 accept their awards was moving for me because of all of the hard work they and their parents, coaches, and communities put in each year. It's something that I've discussed with the families from Louisiana, Oregon, and particularly the Efird family from North Carolina.
In 2010, Hunter Efird from North Carolina was the top Junior individual, and in 2011 I was able to watch him win again in the Senior category. One of my favorite photos that I've taken in my career is that of Hunter and his father embracing following his win in Raton this summer. As I interviewed Hunter and the other winners and coaches, it was apparent that everyone wanted to acknowledge that hard work and practice pay off, and that it takes a group of people to come up with a win.
If that's the truth, then everyone who participated at YHEC this year was a winner, because if anyone knows the meaning of dedication and hard work, it's the people in our YHEC family.