Brigid O’Donoghue granted a terminally ill man’s wish in 2000 by providing him an opportunity to partake in a whitetail deer hunt.
“When I granted that first wish, I knew what my life was going to be about,” she said. “It touched my heart in a special way.”
This experience led O’Donoghue to found the United Special Sportsman Alliance - a nonprofit, dream-wish granting charity that sends disabled and critically ill youth and disabled veterans on outdoor adventures.
Now, the Jackson County-based charity is breaking its own world record for an ongoing Wisconsin group bear hunt for disabled and critically ill youth from more than 10 states.
O’Donoghue started by purchasing a list from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which provided her the names of those hunters who had received Wisconsin bear tags for the season. She then went on a mission to write heartfelt letters to those individuals in hopes they would transfer their tags to critically ill or disabled youth.
These letters, written by O’Donoghue and hand-addressed by the women of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Black River Falls, solicited 39 bear tags, allowing O’Donoghue to grant wishes to 39 critically ill and disabled children.
“I had a feeling we had to try something different,” O’Donoghue said. “To sacrifice a bear tag that had taken so long to receive, I felt the letters had to be compassionate and heartfelt.”
USSA had already established a record with a 2007 bear hunt. There, 28 children went on a hunt, harvesting 23 bear. O’Donoghue said a group bear hunt like this had never taken place before because bear hunts only take place in certain states.
When Gov. Jim Doyle signed a law earlier this year to allow children as young as 10 to hunt, O’Donoghue said it allowed her to grant three wishes that would have otherwise went unfulfilled.
“Without this change, I would not have been able to grant these three children this opportunity,” she said. “I called the governor’s office to tell them how important the law’s passage was for fulfilling these dreams.”
O’Donoghue said these outdoor experiences provide critically ill and disabled children settings where they can leave their illnesses behind.
“When they go out there, it doesn’t matter that they’re sick,” she said. “The great outdoors brings them peace and happiness.”
The bear hunt began Sept. 9 and runs through early October. The hunts take place across Wisconsin in DNR designated zones A through D. Children have already harvested 22 bear on the hunt.
Participants go out on the hunts with a guide and their families. O’Donoghue said some families are avid hunters, while others experience hunting for the first time through the organization.
Dennis Frohmader, who has been an avid hunter his entire life, was introduced to USSA this summer after talking with O’Donoghue. She encouraged Frohmader to take his 14-year-old son Cody, who has cerebral palsy, on USSA’s summer event.
Cody spent a weekend completing hunter’s safety and target practice and other outdoor activities. That is also when O’Donoghue decided to set Cody up for the bear hunt. On Sept. 17 — his first night on the hunt — Cody bagged a bear.
“Cody said it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” his dad said. “He told me, ‘Dad, I feel like I won the lottery.’ He was just so happy, it was amazing.”
Because of his son’s great experience, Frohmader has great appreciation for the USSA and its founder.
“Brigid helps so many kids make their dreams come true,” he said.
O’Donoghue’s mission to provide these outdoor opportunities for disabled and critically ill youth and disabled veterans is a personal one.
When O’Donoghue was 10 months old, she contracted viral encephalitis, which placed her in a coma. This left scar tissue on her left temporal lobe, causing paralysis on her right side.
A few years later, she developed seizures, and when she was a teen, she began to lose her memory and struggled with speech. At 20, she underwent surgery for the seizures and was diagnosed permanently disabled at 25.
“I’ve been sick, and so I want to reassure these kids that you can take what life throws at you and make it a learning lesson,” she said. “I just don’t believe in giving up. Miracles do happen.”
O’Donoghue said the opportunities USSA provides-hunting, fishing, boating, camping and more-give participants a sense of self esteem and self worth.
“Kids tell me it builds their self-esteem and gives them a sense of self-worth and dignity,” she said. “They also gain new friendships through their relationships with their guides.”
Wes Normington has served as a volunteer for the organization since 2005. He served as a guide for the first time on a previous bear hunt. This year, he is hunting alongside a hearing-impaired child who hopes to harvest a bear.
Normington said he looks forward to providing joy to sick kids.
“These adventures help them take their mind off things, their circumstances,” he said. “It provides them a lot of joy.”
But, the kids aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits of the hunts.
“It gives everybody, including the volunteers, a chance to be in the woods and enjoy the outdoors,” Normington said. “Guides also gain friendships with the kids they help.”
O’Donoghue is grateful to all the organizations, donors and volunteers who helped make this bear hunt a success.
The record-setting bear hunt would not have been possible without donations from the Brett Favre Fourward Foundation, Walgreen’s and an especially generous donation of $3,500 from a Hartland hunting club.
Lake Country Foundation, Inc. donated the $3,500 to USSA from its Larry Walters Memorial Hunters Scholarship in memory of Walters, who had passed away.
It was just enough for O’Donoghue to pay for in and out-of-state licensing for the children who went on the hunt.
“They were happy to not only be part of a hunt, but also something that helps sick and disabled children have their wishes granted,” she said.
“A lot of times, people feel they aren’t deserving of the opportunity,” O’Donoghue said. “But, I want people to know that they are. If more people contact us, I can grant more wishes. That’s what I want to do.”