Sue and Ron Darnall of Bloomington, Illinois have deep roots in the shooting sports community. Both Sue and her daughter-in-law Alison fully embraced that family heritage when they married into the family. Sue and her husband Ron now helm Darnall’s Gun Works & Ranges, the family-owned business Ron’s grandfather started in 1923. Their facilities for trap, skeet, sporting clays and indoor and outdoor pistol and rifle shooting have grown into an epicenter of shooting sports activity and fostered wide-reaching programs.
Sue is an original founding member of the Illinois Women’s Shooting Association (IWSA), which was started to meet the growing interest of women looking to get involved in the shooting sports. As part of that effort, the IWSA expanded its scope to involve kids and give them the hands-on experience needed to safely enjoy shooting, especially after receiving their DNR Hunter Safety cards.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of that going on back in the 90s,” Sue explains. “So that’s where we started. We had a clinic. Our camp was begun because we felt the need badly for young people to be able to shoot firearms, all different ones. I always felt that we needed something to tell them that when you get the DNR Hunter Safety card, you need the hands-on experience. I had a one-day clinic, and each child was sponsored by an adult. We had no equipment, no anything. And we had 84 kids show up. The interest was incredible.” That first one-day clinic was held in 1994 and has since grown into the extended, overnight NRA Youth Shooting Camp. Participants arrive on Thursday afternoon and stay through Sunday evening, camping out in tents and rotating in groups through the numerous disciplines and activities offered—.22 rifle, shotgun, pistol, archery, cowboy action, ruger steel (pistols and rifles), rimfire, black powder, air rifle, air pistol, and paintball. The goal is to provide youths with exposure to a wide variety of shooting in the hope that they will find one or more disciplines they wish to pursue outside the camp environment.
“We try to make it a little different every year since we have a lots of kids that come back year after year. It’s about half and half new and returning shooters,” Alison shares. “Parents even plan their vacations around the camp. This year we had 135 participants, aged 9-16. Some younger kids can come too, with a parent. After 16 they can come back as junior staffers to teach the new groups coming through.”
Thanks to the support of NRA Foundation grants—IWSA has received 48 grants from The NRA Foundation since 2000, totaling more than $185,000—the camp now owns the necessary equipment for all of these disciplines and young shooters, though that wasn’t always the case.
“Back when we started we didn’t have money or equipment, so we were borrowing everything,” Sue says. “For years and years we did that. But we got involved with the grant program and slowly we have acquired equipment through grants—shotguns, rifles, pistols, tents, canopies—enough to let the kids have plenty of opportunity. That was the hardest thing to do, to make sure we had enough and the right equipment for them.”
And now that they have all of this equipment at their disposal, Sue makes it available, along with their assistance, to anyone who would like to have a day clinic or try to put on a camp like theirs.
“I used to travel with our trailer to a lot of different places to provide what was needed to start a clinic, including everything from canopies to coolers,” Sue says. “Camps throughout Illinois started this way—with our assistance, their volunteers and the awareness of the grant program.” "It has become apparent to me how important it is to get the kids interested young, make them active shooters and advocates for the sport to pass it on.” Like those camps throughout Illinois, the Brownells/NRA Day program was modelled after Sue’s camp—the longest running youth shooting camp in the country.
“When asked what’s at the top of my list of accomplishments in my shooting life, I have to say it’s my NRA Youth Camp,” beams Sue. “I’m so proud of it because of the kids that come, how they learn and have fun, being kids and interacting with each other while getting to shoot in a safe environment. My camp is my crowning achievement.”
The Darnalls understand the full circle of the fundraising that supports the NRA Foundation grant program. Sue and Ron started the Bloomington Friends of NRA banquet 25 years ago.
“One of our committee members takes pictures of the camp and runs those throughout the dinner to promote how the fundraising is for the youth and the women and the shooting sports,” Sue adds. “I’ve been promoting the NRA all of my married life, 50 years. There is a part of the NRA that isn’t political and it depends on the community and they depend on the grants.”
“All these kids know the NRA and what it stands for,” Alison says. “You spend a weekend with these kids and it’s an educational time for the kids and everyone involved in supporting these camps. It’s due to the fundraising and grants that we’re able to offer a full three-day program for only $100—shooting 12-15 disciplines for two hours each, with ammo and food. If it wasn’t for the grant that we receive from the Foundation it would not be this affordable or reasonable, and that’s what makes it so accessible. It’s a passion for this family, not just a business. With the aging population of volunteers, it has become apparent to me how important it is to get the kids interested young, make them active shooters and advocates for the sport to pass it on.”
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