Organization helps those with disabilities connect or reconnect with outdoors

Kevin Finneman had recently graduated from high school when he and his friend decided to go to the Twin Cities to check out the nightlife. It was 1974, and “we were going to the big city for a Saturday night of going bar-hopping!” he remembered.

A hunter is transported in the field by volunteers at Minnesota Broken Wing Connection. Contributed photo

They also wanted to do a little shopping, and maybe pick up some new music, so they stopped in at a popular music store in Golden Valley. Their next stop was going to be McDonald’s; then, they planned to head downtown to the much-anticipated bar scene.

It should have been a quick stop, but they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. While the two friends were perusing the record bins, a man came in with a gun to rob the store.  Kevin and his friend were both shot. Kevin’s friend was shot in the face – and didn’t survive.  Kevin himself was shot three times, including once in the back. That shot hit his spine and paralyzed him for life. He was only 19 years old.

For many people, becoming paralyzed and losing a friend might have led to a life of self-pity or an endless feeling of victimization. But Kevin isn’t one to have a pity party. After spending time recovering from the shooting, Kevin wanted to move forward with his life, choosing a life of accomplishment rather than a life of anger and bitterness. After completing a degree in mechanical engineering, Kevin moved to Arizona, where he worked for over 30 years as a mechanical engineer. He retired in 2014 with a full pension.

“I wanted to be able to take care of myself,” he said. And he has. He now splits his time between Minnesota and Arizona, enjoying the hunting and fishing he can do in Minnesota and the warm winters in Arizona.

Kevin Finneman, center, at the Minnesota Broken Wing Connection’s 2018 Pheasant Invitational. On his right (with a leather hat and holding a bird), Jim Strotman. On his left, Steve Groinus. Both are South Haven Sportsman’s Club volunteers with Minnesota Broken Wing Connection. Contributed photo

Now that he is retired, Kevin likes to stay busy. “I want to keep myself punched up,” he said, “and have something to do.” Kevin has looked into opportunities available to people with disabilities for some of the things he enjoys. A friend sent him information about an organization called Minnesota Broken Wing Connection, a nonprofit which focuses on helping people with disabilities discover –or rediscover – the outdoors. They sponsor a pheasant hunt in September which is staffed with volunteers who help the hunters with anything they might need help with – from carrying guns to handling dogs to providing a way to get into the fields.

Kevin has done some hunting in the past, and has found that there are organizations which sponsor hunting and fishing trips. He was able to go on a walleye fishing trip to Rainy River in July and has gone deer hunting with another organization. But, he said, “I would have never gone pheasant hunting if it wasn’t for these guys.”

The volunteers were “a lot of fun,” said Kevin. “They are pretty well-organized – they’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. But the main thing was how easygoing and fun they were to be around. All the volunteers, he said, “are there helping you, but you can joke with them, and they can joke with you!”  

The Minnesota Broken Wing Connection was started in 1992 by two cousins who were living with a disease that affects the nervous system called adrenoleukodystrophy. They were both passionate about finding ways to be able to do the things they loved. The nonprofit was the result of much planning and a strong can-do attitude.

Hunter taken through the 3-D archery course on a trailer – pulled by a 4-wheeler. Contributed photo

Now going into its 27th year, the Minnesota Broken Wing Connection is devoted to creating a rewarding hunting experience for people with disabilities. Their Pheasant Invitational held each September on a 640-acre preserve near Pine River, Minn., provides an entire weekend of hunting for up to 12 hunters, who may each bring a companion (who does not, in general, take part in the hunt). Apart from transportation to and from the event, the weekend’s activities are free, including accommodations at a local hotel, and meals, which are cooked at the site. All the hunting equipment, birds, dogs – even guns – are included, and cost the participant nothing out of pocket.

Although some hunters walk, the nonprofit provides Jeeps which are specially fitted with a rack on the front so that the hunter can sit – in a wheelchair if he or she uses one – or on another chair if not. This way, the hunter can easily navigate the rough terrain that might be difficult for some to cross on foot – and can save their strength for the rest of the hunt. A volunteer drives the Jeep; there are also volunteer dog handlers, volunteers who take care of the birds, and volunteer gun handlers.

In addition to pheasant hunting, the weekend allows hunters to spend time trap shooting and trying the 3-D archery course. Hunters are taken through the 3-D archery course on a trailer – pulled by a 4-wheeler – in which the hunter can sit. Again, if the hunter does not use a wheelchair, there are other chairs available to sit on. At each stage, a volunteer is available to help the hunter if he or she needs assistance. Special mechanical devices are available for holding the guns or assisting with firing, as well.

Hunters and volunteers out in the field. Contributed photo

In fact, said Verna Gertgen, who has been volunteering with Minnesota Broken Wing Connection since the 1990s, it is so important for the nonprofit to find ways to assist people with disabilities that they will find a way to make it work. “So don’t think you can’t do this,” she said. “If you can’t, we’ll make it so you can!” she exclaimed, echoing the nonprofit’s motto of “Never Say Uncle!”

Members of the Minnesota Broken Wing Connection also pride themselves on their safety record. “That’s why,” said Verna, “we have gun handlers that walk beside the Jeep and bring the hunter’s gun to them.  Safety is the most important thing.”

The Gertgens first heard about the Minnesota Broken Wing Connection through a neighbor – also a hunter – who had suggested that her husband come along and volunteer one year.   Verna remembers very well what he said when he returned. He was so excited that he exclaimed, “We’re all going next year!” The family began volunteering together in 1994; they have been volunteering ever since – now even the grandkids help out.

Norm Bodeker, of South Haven, Minnesota, also began volunteering many years ago. He got involved after being told about it by the president of the Sportsman’s Club. Now he handles the birds for the pheasant hunt. “It’s a really unique opportunity,” said Norm, “to help others.”

“When you go there for the weekend,” said Verna, “it really humbles you.” Perhaps that is why there are so many volunteers who have spent 20 years or more of helping out with this hunt.

As Kevin Finneman said, so many of the volunteers are related or know each other from other events, that, “it’s like a reunion for them.” Kevin found the experience to be very rewarding.  “They put you right in there, so you feel like you’re part of the family.” In fact, he said, “I would like to go back next year just to hang out with them!”

“You can apply to be part of our pheasant hunt online,” said Verna, who is currently the treasurer of the Minnesota Broken Wing Connection. “Or you can just call me at 320-796-5710.”  The nonprofit’s website can be found at: https://www.minnesotabrokenwing.org/.  They also are on Facebook at The Minnesota Broken Wing Connection.