Yearly hunting trip makes local paraplegic ‘feel like a kid on Christmas morning’ – The Gardner News

Carole Gariepy  |  Special for The Gardner News

Shawn Mei waits with great anticipation while his dad and friend Rick French help him get ready to spend the day out in the woods deer hunting on his own, a highlight of his life.

It’s a special paraplegic hunt that MassWildlife has held every year since 1973, except last year when it was canceled because of COVID. (The first event was held at Red Apple Farm in Phillipston.) Shawn has been a participant for 32 years. After the hunt, he waits to get the date for the next year so he can put it on his calendar and look forward to the activity he loves so much.

This year’s hunt started on Oct. 28, a three-day event. It’s good to have it in October as the regular season starts in December and would likely be too cold for someone who has to sit in a wheelchair all day.

Shawn’s family are all hunters. He said, “It’s in our blood.” His father took him a few times when he was a teenager, but it was hard for a person with cerebral palsy to get out in the woods. However, he did learn how to use a gun by doing target practicing at his uncle’s rural property.

In 1990, when he was 15, his father read about the paraplegic hunt in Williamstown and said, “Let’s go up and see what it’s all about.”

“I was very shy. It would be the first time doing something on my own,” Shawn said.

John Sylvester, who not only gave permission to MassWildlife to use his property for the hunt, offered to help every year. He took Shawn under his wing.

“He was an awesome man, very nice,” Shawn said. “He gave me a boost and made me feel good about myself. I had a good time. I absolutely loved it. John has passed away, but his daughter, Stacy, still helps and she’s very nice, too. The new landowners and neighbors still welcome us to hunt.”

A lot of planning and preparation goes into the hunt. Wildlife biologist Susan McCarthy is the state coordinator. She sets the dates and sends out invitations to the previous year’s participants and to the people who volunteer to help. She also sends forms for the paraplegics to fill out to obtain a free sportsman’s license.

She says new participants are welcome and can obtain information on the MassWildlife website (mass.gov/masswildlife) or by calling 508-389-6300. Shawn always goes to the hunt in Williamstown, but McCarthy says there are now four other places in the state where it is hosted.

I found out about the hunt from my neighbor, Rick French, who learned about it 30 years ago and motivated his brother-in-law to participate after he became disabled from a motorcycle accident. Rick went along as his helper for three years. After his brother-in-law could no longer go, Rick continued to help with the program that he calls “fantastic.”

“In Williamstown, Rick French runs the show. I greatly appreciate the effort he puts into it,” McCarthy said. “He goes up in the late summer and makes arrangements with the landowners, as it’s all on private property. Then he goes up a day before the event and puts out the 4-foot-square platforms the wheelchairs will go on and makes sure the area where the trucks bring in the participants is clear.”

“Many local folks stop by and help; even the people at the motel where we all stay are supportive and welcoming,” French said.

A MassWildlife staff member stops by each day to check on the hunt and record data when a deer is harvested.

“It has always been a positive experience for everyone, a great opportunity for the mobility impaired, and a rewarding and enjoyable experience for the volunteers,” McCarthy said.

“I feel like a kid on Christmas morning when I get up on the morning of the hunt,” Shawn said. “I’m excited with anticipation. I get dressed in my camouflage, have my cup of coffee and off I go from sunrise till sunset. I have a big lunch and my cellphone, but I don’t turn it on. I don’t want a sound to scare away any wildlife.”

I asked what he does out there all day alone, and he said, “I do a lot of thinking. I reflect on the year I had and the year ahead, the goals to set for myself. It’s quiet and peaceful. I’m in the beautiful wilderness of God’s country, the fresh air. I feel so blessed and grateful.”

This year Shawn got a deer, the first in 14 years. In all, he’s gotten five. He says he calls the helpers and they come get the deer, drag it out of the woods, cut it up and package it. He shares the meat with everyone.

“We’re all like family now. I’ve made lots of friends,” Shawn said. “In the evening, we eat together and tell stories. We have a blast. I look forward to it every year. Getting a deer is just the bonus.”

I have to say that visiting with Shawn at his senior housing apartment in Templeton was a bonus for me. He is such an inspiration. It’s wonderful at this time, when many people feel negative about life, to be with a person with so many challenges yet is so positive and thankful.

I can understand why people volunteer year after year to help with the paraplegic hunt. Bringing happiness to someone gives happiness in return.

Carole Gariepy is a Phillipston resident and author of “In Isolation.”