Community Spotlight: Nonprofit founder gives others chance to hunt and heal, like him

Community Spotlight

LILLEY TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Sitting by himself around a bonfire on a clear Saturday night, Carson Nyenhuis is content with the silence.

The glow from the stars, the breeze through the trees and the smell of the smoldering fire are all he needs to take a fulfilling deep breath and think to himself, “We did it.” It hasn’t been easy, but on this night, with a group of campers asleep after another successful hunting weekend, Nyenhuis can’t help but feel grateful.

“I was just happy,” Nyenhuis said about that Saturday night. “It came together and it’s serving its purpose. People are leaving here happy, excited about possibilities of getting out and doing it on their own. And that’s the purpose.”

The purpose is Hunt 2 Heal. The new nonprofit offers hunters with severe mobility disabilities the chance to get back into the woods and experience nature. The camp boasts a square mile, or 650 acres of wilderness in Bitely in northern Newaygo County, plus a brand new, fully accessible lodge sitting atop a hill and overlooking a vast bog.

“My grandpa’s owned (the property) for 30 years. He bought it a long time ago and we never did anything with it,” Nyenhuis said. “We didn’t do anything for a while until the past four years that we’ve been working on this.”

The view of the vast bog from the outdoor fire pit at Hunt 2 Heal.

Inside the lodge, there are four unique rooms that offer accessibility and privacy to a hunter and their caregiver. They’re open, with wider doors, zero-grade showers and accessible sinks and toilets. Nyenhuis had a hand in all those touches. He wanted to get rid of any barriers that might stop a hunter with disabilities from coming to the camp.

“That’s why a lot of people don’t like to go other places, they don’t like to travel, because they’re so uncertain about how it is staying somewhere else,” Nyenhuis said “That’s one of the biggest hurdles that they need to overcome. And also they don’t like to explain it, to explain why they need these special amenities.”

Nyenhuis is speaking from experience. A motorcycle crash five years ago broke his C1 and C2 vertebrae and caused spinal cord damage to breaks in his T3 and T4, paralyzing him from the armpits down.

“Everyone that comes in here, I can see a little bit of myself or their struggle, I can understand,” Nyenhuis said.

He was the type of guy who never stopped moving. He was busy and loved everything outdoors: hunting, fishing, dirt bikes, snowboarding and skateboarding. But when the reality of his condition sunk in, Nyenhuis said he experienced intense depression that got the best of him.

“This completely different life, you know? I got home and I’m sitting in a power chair with broken wrists, I can’t hardly pick anything up, I can’t do much of anything,” Nyenhuis said.

In a crummy state of mind, Nyenhuis said a group of friends forced him to go out hunting. Reluctantly, he made his way through the woods, out to a blind. And within a matter of minutes, his entire perspective on life changed.

“A couple of doe come out and it was, it was a really surreal moment,” Nyenhuis said. “In that moment, I forgot about everything. I forgot about my injury. I forgot about what I was going through. I forgot about my depression.”

He was in awe of the beauty and creation in front of him and at that moment he knew he had to share that feeling with others experiencing life as he was to help them see the possibilities in life that exist.

“There’s so many other people out there that are forgotten about and left behind and don’t get the opportunity to do this stuff. That’s why we created this,” Nyenhuis said about H2H. “I’m not trying to necessarily say this is going to change everyone’s life, but it might create a spark in your life, too.

“And, you know, I want to show people that they can do this.”

Kim Monks, Heal 2 Hunt’s executive director, has been preparing to help bring Nyenhuis’s dream to life since January 2020. A common theme has developed since the grand opening on Aug. 19 of this year.

“One word that I’ve heard a lot of people say is ‘respite,’” Monks said. “Not just for the hunters, but for their caregivers, especially because it’s a place that they can come and feel taken care of, too. Our hosts here and our volunteers are catering to both of them and just letting them have a place to come and relax for a whole weekend.”

The lodge is inviting and open. A large dinner table separates the low countertops and appliances of the kitchen and the lounge space around a giant fireplace. Each room has its own private bathroom with different levels of accommodation to be as flexible to a person’s needs as possible. It’s obvious Nyenhuis designed it to fit needs similar to his.

“He’s a great example of what they can actually accomplish, knowing that if you put your mind to something and you have the support of other people there with you, alongside with you, that you can achieve whatever you want to do,” Monks said.

Hunting weekends in the fall and spring start on Fridays. The group sets a strategy for what kind of routine might work for its morning hunt Saturday. They leave as early as they can Saturday to get out to the accessible blinds. After a morning of hunting, they come back to the focal point of the lodge: the outdoor fire pit. Then it’s bacon over the fire, eggs, coffee, and stories about the morning.

View of the back of the lodge, with fire pit centered between the two wings of rooms.

The afternoon is left open for the hunters to fill before they’re able to head back out for an evening hunt Saturday. After, it’s another fire with stories to last until they’re ready to leave. By early afternoon Sunday, the weekend is done and Nyenhuis sees the difference he’s making.

“It’s serving its purpose. People are leaving here, happy, excited about possibilities of getting out and doing it on their own,” Nyenhuis said. “Just being out there, seeing the deer is changing their lives, just like it did for mine.”

Through the generosity of the community and volunteers, the nonprofit is working to keep the experience completely free to every hunter.

“We want to be able to provide this experience to people that wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise,” Monks said. “So whether it’s due to lack of resources, finances, the knowledge about hunting or just any resource you would need to be able to get out, we want to be able to provide this to people that couldn’t do it on their own.”

Already, the group is taking applications for spring turkey hunting season and 2022’s deer season.

Its biggest needs remain monetary donations, as Monks says that starting from scratch is difficult because the organization has to buy specialized equipment like off-road wheelchairs. You can learn more or get involved with Hunt 2 Heal on its website.

Nyenhuis is focused on spreading that feeling he had around the fire: a sense of accomplishment and the understanding that it took looking through a blind to see the beauty of life.

“I’m lucky. Not lucky that I hit the tree but who knows where I’d be had that not happened,” Nyenhuis said around the fire. “It’s a blessing in disguise. It’s something that changed my life around and now, now I’m able to give back, which I’ve always wanted to.

“I’m happy.”

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