Rugged Respite

Outdoor Dream Foundation provides adventures for critically ill children



ew spectacles of nature rival the majesty and symbolism associated with sunrises and sunsets. Each one heralds the opening and closing of a new day for creatures of the earth — uniquely fraught with trials or triumphs — as the light of day succumbs to the inevitable darkness of night, and then the process begins anew. Sunrises and sunsets are usually taken for granted by most children. But children living with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses are acutely aware of the limited number of sunrises and sunsets they may witness. Their moments between those sunrises and sunsets generally involve hard-fought battles for their lives through rounds of surgeries and medical treatments. This struggle is especially difficult for children who pine for outdoor adventures. For them, any moments spent in nature might be more precious than the Crown Jewels of Britain. Fortunately for these kids, the Outdoor Dream Foundation exists.

In 1999, after a long bout with leukemia, a young man named Isaac Ponder succumbed to his illness. But before his diagnosis and ensuing battle with cancer, he hunted regularly with Brad Jones of Anderson, South Carolina. After Isaac died, Brad felt compelled to help children who loved the sporting life but were not able to experience many outings due to their illnesses. He learned that a major wish-granting foundation dropped hunting from its program, so he and a friend eventually established the Outdoor Dream Foundation in 2004, with the goal of providing children with terminal or life-threatening conditions the chance to experience an outdoor dream of their choosing.

Brad received referrals from pediatric oncology locations in the Greenville area but eventually expanded the program to serve the entire state. His network rapidly expanded the foundation’s services and options for the kids and their families and began including their reach to children outside of the state. As their organization grew, more donors and volunteers associated themselves with the foundation. “Most of our funding started coming in from celebrity dinners and private donations,” Brad says. “We completely outfit the child and one parent to go wherever they’d like to hunt or fish in North America.”

Eventually in 2012, Brad and the Outdoor Dream Foundation received attention from professional sportsman and Pursuit Channel producer Doug Hamric, who arranged for a child referred by the foundation to go on a hunt for whitetail deer. Doug did not realize at the time how much his life would change after this experience. “I’d been looking for an opportunity to be involved with children, but it still hadn’t dawned on me until about halfway through the first day of this hunt. I fell in love with what we were doing, and it was literally like a light switch came on,” he passionately recalls.

Doug decided to produce a show in 2016 to raise awareness for the Outdoor Dream Foundation and to travel the country raising money on its behalf. “Outside of God and my family, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Doug says.

He and his team were hosting one of the children on an elk hunt in New Mexico when Doug fully realized the impactful effect of their work. Doug and the boy stood together for a moment when the cameras were not rolling, and the father and the guide had stepped out of earshot. The young boy thanked Doug for making his dream hunt come true, and Doug responded, “That’s what we do and that’s what we’re here for.” Sensing a need to reiterate his level of gratitude, the boy reached up, tightly grabbed Doug’s arm, and with moistening eyes said, “No, you don’t understand. Since we’ve been here, I haven’t had to think about a doctor, or a hospital, or a needle.”

When the Outdoor Dream Foundation approached Clay Dixon of Lexington, he couldn’t have been more thrilled. “I’d heard of them and wanted to get on their list, but instead of me having to find them they reached out to me,” Clay says. Though he’s mostly as spry and witty as any other 16-year-old, Clay has been diagnosed with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. Because of its location on the brain stem and web-like invasion of the tissue, these particular tumors are inoperable and mostly impervious to conventional cancer treatments. In spite of his condition, Clay still enjoys hunting and outdoor pursuits — and because of his condition, he appreciates them more.

The team at Outdoor Dream Foundation asked Clay where he’d like to go and what he’d like to hunt, and instead of giving them an immediate answer he sagely asked for some time to consider his options. “I wanted to hunt something I couldn’t find in South Carolina. I hunt deer and turkeys on my family property, and so I wanted this to be different and special,” Clay says. He settled on an elk hunt, and in 2016 the Outdoor Dream Foundation sent him and his family on an all-expenses paid trip to Astoria, Oregon. They experienced the culture and surroundings of the Pacific Northwest for a few days before heading off to a wilderness lodge where Clay would prepare for his dream hunt.

Both Clay and Johnnie Dixon, his father, were appropriately clothed for the adventure, and he additionally received a rifle capable of mercifully harvesting his quarry. “I had no idea what they meant when they said ‘rifle,’ but it’s absolutely beautiful. They built it special, just for me. It’s got a custom weighted barrel with a muzzle brake and an inscription saying ‘Clay Dixon, 2016, Outdoor Dream Hunt’ engraved on it,” he says. He treasures this rifle, insisting it stay immaculately clean and subsequently locked away safely when not in use.

Having been properly armed and outfitted, Clay and Johnnie Dixon began their four-day adventure into the mountains. They traversed the hills and valleys of Oregon timber country in search of a bull (male) elk of suitable size. Clay readily admits he was somewhat physically unprepared for the challenges of stalking large game, his lungs and legs having to pump harder than in his native state due to the extreme altitudes and terrain. Nevertheless, the boy continued despite his fatigue, insisting he bear his own weapon and equipment. “We were on foot most of the time, even though we had a truck. Trucks aren’t allowed into the logging areas where we hunted, but they made an exception for me for the purposes of harvesting the elk,” says Clay.

On the third day of the hunt, they spotted a trophy bull in a herd of about a dozen females from a cliff several hundred yards away. The guide attempted to maneuver their group around the herd undetected so Clay could be presented with a clean shot, but they were unable to position themselves before the vesper hours of dusk seized the landscape and ended their hunt. They slipped out of the forest under the darkness of night after a third unsuccessful outing. Fortunately, Clay and his team had one more day of hunting left, and the guide had a plan for how they could take the bull.

Clay and his team rose before dawn and waited in an area where the guide believed they would see the herd. During the mid-afternoon hours, the bull appeared through the long range optics of Clay’s rifle. They watched the elk move through the forested valley until he presented a shot. Having been accustomed to whitetail deer hunting, the boy inhaled deeply and held his breath long enough to steady the crosshairs of his rifle on the animal’s front shoulder. He squeezed off a round and cleanly missed. Clay broke the cheek-weld from the stock of his rifle and gave a puzzled look to his guide, wondering why the elk did not sprint away as a whitetail deer would have done. The guide explained the acoustics of the mountains masked the location of their shot; the elk heard the report of the rifle but did not know from where it came. He directed Clay to chamber another round. The boy worked the bolt, feeding another round from the rifle’s magazine, and then reconnected his cheek to the stock.

The guide told Clay he needed to adjust for windage this time and quickly instructed him on how to use the crosshairs of his optics to accomplish this. He lined up the crosshairs — adjusting for windage — and repeated the familiar process of basic rifle marksmanship, controlling for breath and trigger pull.

Clay squeezed off a second shot and connected with his quarry at a distance of close to 600 yards. His guide exclaimed, “You hit him!” Clay remembered the advice he received at the beginning of the hunt to immediately chamber another round for a follow-up shot, which he rapidly achieved without losing sight of the elk through the lens of his scope. He concentrated through narrow vision and hurried breath — prototypical symptoms of an adrenal dump — to squeeze off the final kill-shot, mercifully dropping his elk in its tracks.

Clay barely had time to safety his rifle before the guide swept him off the ground, tossing him onto his shoulders like a game-winning hero. Everyone else in their party erupted in celebratory whooping and joyous praise of his achievement. As they descended from the cliff where the shot was taken, Clay looked back in astonishment at the distance covered by the projectile. Photos were taken before the team collected Clay’s prize and returned to the lodge where the rest of the family awaited their arrival, and the celebration continued. “I’ll never forget that day. I’ll always remember it perfectly,” he says. The foundation sent the head to a taxidermist and processed all the meat harvested from Clay’s hunt.

Because of the extensive network of volunteers, donors, and outfitters of the Outdoor Dream Foundation, children like Clay are afforded the opportunity to experience otherwise unattainable adventures. They hope to establish state and regional chapters across North America to meet the increasing demand, likely a result from the feature on the Pursuit Channel.

Doug says, “You often hear the term ‘labor of love’ to describe what we do for these kids. But after seeing their faces during these events, this isn’t a ‘labor of love’ — it’s not a labor at all.”