November 20, 2013
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Quincey Banks thinks the Mentoring Sportsmen of Alabama program is at a tipping point. Although the program has tried to connect youngsters with the outdoors for several years with some success, the 2013 special youth deer hunting season has raised Banks’ hope for the future.
Banks, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Sergeant Aurora Thomas and several mentor volunteers from southeast Alabama were welcomed to Sawtooth Plantation in Russell County, where owner John Cassimus gave the youths an opportunity to harvest a white-tailed deer.
What made the 2013 event special was that Cassimus had recruited nearby landowners to participate in the annual youth hunt, which significantly raised Banks’ spirits.
“John, a successful restaurateur, graciously allowed us to come up and harvest does on his property,” said Banks, an avid hunter and wildlife photographer. “The second year, we had about 12 kids come up, and John asked his neighbor, who owns adjacent property, if he could help. This year, John has gone out and recruited more landowners in Russell, Barbour, Bullock (counties) to take kids hunting on their properties. I think we now have five sponsors for the kids. So it’s growing by leaps and bounds in terms of having places to go.”
Banks, an electronics instructor at Wallace State Community College in Dothan, doesn’t want this program to be limited to southeast Alabama.
“I would love to see this thing branch out to the point that we replicate it in all 67 counties in Alabama,” he said. “I hope that we can find 10 individuals in each county who are willing, on a yearly basis, to take kids outdoors and participate in deer hunting or duck hunting or other activities. And they will pair the youngsters up with mentors. Once we get those kids in the outdoors, those kids will go back and share with the other youth in the area. If we can duplicate it, we’ll have plenty of sportsmen in the field.”
The original idea for the program came from former Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley and former WFF Director Corky Pugh, who directed Donald Brooks, head of Conservation’s Diversity and Recruitment, to try to get African-American kids in the outdoors. Brooks went to Thomas, who recruited Banks to help.
“A lot of the kids come from single-parent homes, so a lot of the mothers don’t have time to get the kids outdoors,” Banks said. “Some of the kids don’t have the clothes or equipment, so we’ve been getting the clothes and equipment through donations or out of our pockets to make sure the kids come out and are successful and comfortable while they’re doing it.”
Banks admits recruitment is difficult in today’s society with so many different interests competing for the kids’ time.
“There seems to be a reduction of kids getting outdoors because of video games and those sorts of things,” Banks said. “There are probably three out of every 10 we find that will be dedicated enough to come out and then continue to hunt after we get them exposed to it. I’m a hunter, fisherman and semi-professional wildlife photographer. I do those things because I was exposed to them when I was a youth. If you don’t have someone around you doing those activities, you don’t tend to participate in those activities. So our main focus is to team these kids up with someone who participates in these different activities. This exposure will allow the kids to make a measured decision on whether they want to continue to participate. All we want to do is get them outdoors.”
“When this was first started, it was proposed to us as being for African-American kids. Now, we want any kid who wants to get involved with the outdoors. We don’t care what their ethnic background is. As long as they are youngsters under the age of 16, primarily, who want to be exposed to the outdoors, we welcome them.”
When the program first started, Thomas said the kids were taken on dove-hunting excursions.
“Then the kids started asking, ‘When are we going deer hunting?’ We took three or four out to Quincey’s property to deer hunt, and when we got back, the rest wanted to know when they could go,” Thomas said.
The connection with Cassimus came the next year when Thomas was inspecting Sawtooth Plantation’s game breeder facilities at the 1,200-acre plantation.
“I told John about what we were doing, and he asked if we wanted to bring the kids up here to help him shoot some does,” Thomas said. “It’s been wonderful bringing them up. The kids really enjoy just coming up to see this place.”
During his business career, Cassimus turned his mother’s venture – Zoë’s Kitchen – into a 15-state chain of 102 restaurants. He remains a partner in Zoë’s Kitchen and has started two Japanese concept restaurants – Maki Fresh and Jinsei Sushi. Cassimus also sits on the boards of the business schools at the University of Alabama and Ole Miss.
“This (Sawtooth) was a dream from my childhood,” Cassimus said. “I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to hunt for my food. I wanted to ride a horse everywhere. From the minute I had a BB gun and started fishing, I was obsessed with it. As I got older, I couldn’t afford to be in a hunting club, but my friend had land and took me hunting with him. I said if I ever was able to afford it, I was going to own my own land and live on it out in the country. I figured the farther out in the country the better, so I ended up 5 miles down a dirt road and 35 miles from a grocery store. I’m in heaven.
“When I’m out giving speeches or talking to people, I always think it’s very important to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. That’s something I’m very passionate about. When I built this place, I knew I was very fortunate, and for the first 40 years of my life I couldn’t afford anything like this. It took dedication and hard work, but once I had it, I knew I had friends who couldn’t afford anything like this. So I set it up so I could share it with friends and family. I give a lot of hunts away to charities and bring young people in. We won’t have hunting if we don’t get young people hunting.”
Cassimus said he has hosted Wounded Warrior hunts and is working on a Catch-A-Dream Foundation hunt to bring in a family with a terminally ill child to hunt a big buck.
“That’s what this place is all about – food, family, friends and the outdoors,” he said. “Right now I’m trying to build the deer herd to the point where we can bring kids in and let them shoot a deer of a lifetime, make dreams come true.
“I tell these kids it’s a wide-open world out there. These kids can do anything they want to do. If they’re loved and told they can do it and believe in themselves, they can do anything.”
For those who want to make a donation to or want more information about Mentoring Sportsmen of Alabama, Banks can be reached at 334-695-0036 or email@example.com. To reach Sgt. Thomas, call the WFF District IV office at 334-347-9467.
“The biggest need we have is getting the equipment to work with the kids, the firearms and ammunition,” Thomas said. “The kids are ready to go. We take them to the range to get them proficient with a rifle. And they’ll go through a box of ammo quick.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Sterling Thomas, 15, had a successful hunt at Sawtooth Plantation during the Mentoring Sportsmen of Alabama event during the special youth deer season recently. Sawtooth owner John Cassimus of Zoë’s Kitchen fame treated the youngsters and mentors to barbecue pork before the afternoon hunt started.