By Dustin Turner
Keith Stille and his wife, Sonya, knew they wanted to do something to help others. After all, they had been blessed with a 600-acre plantation in White Plains, Ga., complete with woods, lakes and plenty of wildlife. After praying about the matter for a year, an opportunity presented itself.
“I saw on social media that a friend I went to high school with was at MCG Children’s Hospital,” Keith says. “His son was fighting Ewing sarcoma. I was on social media and saw that, and it moved me.”
So, the Stilles brought the family to the plantation so they could ride around and see some wildlife. Keith’s friend was a hunter and after a bit of conversation, the idea for Hunting for the Cure solidified. “God moved us in that direction,” Keith says.
“It really is a God thing,” Sonya adds.
Founded in 2012, Hunting for the Cure is a 501c3 nonprofit co-founded by the Stilles. Its purpose is to share “nature’s majestic grace,” as Keith calls it, with children fighting cancer or in remission. HFC flies in patients and their families to the area to hunt (deer, hog, geese, duck, rabbit and more) or fish on the property. The organization also will send them deep-sea fishing in Charleston or to other parts of the U.S. to hunt (bear hunting in Wisconsin or helicopter hog hunting in Texas, for example). Hunting for the Cure houses the families (either in the lodge or at their destination) and takes care of all their needs. Any wildlife that is harvested gets mounted and processed for meat. It is all free and for the entire family.
Hunting, though, is not required. In fact, Keith points out, it is second to the main purpose: Sharing a smile with a child fighting cancer. Nobody ever has to harvest animals. They are welcome to watch the wildlife and enjoy nature.
“We believe in the family,” Sonya says. “Cancer is not an individual diagnosis. It is a family diagnosis, which is why the entire family comes and stays. Even the siblings get to hunt.”
Keith explains it this way, “If you have a family of three kids and Joey gets a cancer diagnosis, you think, ‘Oh, no! What are we going to do?’ And the parents naturally drift toward the child that’s sick, because that child now has special needs and requires more attention so it affects Joey, his parents and his two siblings. Our focus always has been the family unit, not just Joey and not just Mom and Dad.”
Hunting for the Cure’s activities are open to children in remission, too. “Even when a child is in remission, they still have lasting effects,” Sonya explains. “It can be emotional, not just physical. They wonder why some kids die and they didn’t.”
Hunting for the Cure wants to take children out of the world of hospitals and treatments and let them have fun. “Even if it’s just for a weekend,” Keith says, “The kids get to say, “I’m done with the gown. I’m putting on the camo.”
After a group hunt, about 16 kids were sitting around a table at the lodge, sharing stories of what they saw or harvested that day – smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves. “The parents were in kitchen watching,” Keith recalls, “And they said, ‘Wow! Just for a moment, I don’t have to tell him to go take his medicine.’ Just for a moment, these kids get to smile and laugh.”
Volunteers help do everything from planting food for wildlife to setting up duck blinds and deer stands and guiding hunts with families. Volunteering with Hunting for the Cure has been a life-changing blessing for Tommy Windham.
“Man, the rewards you get from putting a smile on that child’s face -there is nothing to compare that to. This was a calling from God,” he says. “God put it on my heart that I needed to be doing more with my life.”
So, for the past three years, he has served as a volunteer and guide. “You form a relationship while you are sitting in the deer stand. You hear about what they have gone through and it makes you look at your life differently. You sit down with the family after the hunt and we cry with them and over them. I never cried much before Hunting for the Cure. I do now, and it’s good.”
The volunteers and the Stilles form bonds with the children and their families. Like Sonya says, “When you come to the lodge, you are part of the family. When you come into our lodge, treat it as your home. Every family who leaves there feels the nurturing and the love. Our goal is to shower them with love.”
Some experiences prove to the Stilles that they are doing something good for people. Keith tells of a family who went on a hunt. There were three children hunting, and the father was in a deer stand with his sick daughter. They saw a lot of deer but didn’t harvest anything. “Their guide comes back, and says, ‘Keith, we have a problem. Dad is pressuring his sick daughter to harvest deer and she doesn’t want to. She is in tears.’”
So Keith explained to the dad that the experience is about the child and not what he wants. “We sat around the fire pit that evening, and Dad apologized,” Keith explains. “He was thinking about food for his freezer. This family didn’t have food. They lost everything in paying for treatments so we told him we’ll let the kids enjoy themselves and we’ll harvest some deer ourselves and ship them the meat, which we later did. When a grown man, begins to weep and share a story like that, it sinks in. You understand.”
Unlike many organizations that offer a one-time experience, families are allowed to return. Many do and often at their own expense. Children and their families come from all over the U.S. and often keep in touch with one another to plan return trips. Sometimes, a return trip is necessary, as was the case with a New Jersey family.
Logan was diagnosed with cancer. The family flew in and stayed at the lodge for seven days around Christmas that year. Logan went mallard, hog, goose and deer hunting and freshwater fishing. “Now, to say he was sick is an understatement,” Keith says. “He was nauseated from his treatments and I had to pull over several times for him. I told him we could go back to the lodge and try again late but he wouldn’t do it. When we got to mallard pond, he had an incredible day and shot 21 mallards.”
After their stay, the family returned home. They were scheduled for a return trip a few months later, but Logan went into the hospital, where he passed away. “Two weeks after his funeral, his parents reached out to us and asked, ‘Can we get away?’ As a part of their bereavement process, they came back. They are family now.”
Hunting for the Cure does an oyster roast fundraiser every year and the family flies in from New Jersey – “On their own dime!” Sonya points out – “to volunteer.”
Amber and Randall Vess, of Marion, NC, have five children. Their oldest, Meagan, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 10. That went into remission but now – at 16 – she has been fighting brain cancer for two years. Amber appreciates how Hunting for the Cure includes the whole family.
“Meagan had been on several hunts but never one like this. The kids get to interact with other kids going through the same thing. It gives us a vacation away from hospitals and normal things that come along with fighting cancer. Not only was Meagan affected but so were the siblings and the whole family. We went, and her siblings got to hunt,” Amber says. “It’s not like you see them one time and you’re done. You can go back and they become family. We keep going back to see the people as much as to go hunting.”
As the stories continue – too many for one article – Keith and Sonya wipe away tears. Keith says he knew they wanted to be able to bless the children but he never knew how much the children and their experiences would bless them. For example, one of the volunteer guides is getting married soon and her wedding party will be children who have come to the lodge.
“Think about that,” Sonya says. “Your wedding is one of the most important days of your life and she is choosing these kids to be her ring bearer and bridesmaids.”
For Keith – and everyone involved in Hunting for the Cure – it is all about bonds, family and love. “You see the bald heads, the scars, the nausea and some children who can barely walk – but you see the joy. It’s not about the harvest. It’s about the smile. We just engulf them with love.”
For more information about Hunting for the Cure, go to www.huntingforthecure.org; or call (706) 476-0096. Send email to email@example.com; and like the Hunting for the Cure page on Facebook.
This article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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