Birchwood Recreation & Shooting Park is closed one Saturday each year. Closed it may be, but June 3rd, the park is not deserted. The parking lot is packed, and volunteers are directing drivers into the few empty parking slots left. People are here today for the annual NRA Youth Day.
This free event is open to youth aged 8-18, and is intended to offer an opportunity for kids to try out different disciplines of the shooting sports. Registration opens in April, and within a few hours, names are being added to the wait list.
At the check-in table, things run smoothly. Participants and parent volunteers are assigned a group color. Group leaders hold sticks with colored paper high in the air so that everyone knows where to go. These groups stay together and will rotate through stations all day.
After check-in, everyone attends the safety briefing. There are no exceptions. The safety briefing is the first time they hear the rules today, but not the last. Not by a long shot. They will get another briefing at every station.
These are kids with projectiles. Safety is everything, there is no messing around. Ear and eye protection is provided for anyone who needs it, and it’s expected to be worn. Everyone pays attention to the direction of every muzzle, sling shot, and arrow.
While safety is paramount, teaching safe handling of firearms is not the only goal today. Organizers want participants to experience various shooting sports. Each station offers kids an opportunity to experience something new. Archery, shotgun, riflery, sling shot, air rifles and pistols, muzzleloaders and Cowboy Action Shooting. Kids also do sessions on orienteering, tracking, animal conservation and get to feel the furs and skulls of various animals in the Sensory Safari.
There are over 200 volunteers: parents, grandparents, community members, and a group of high school kids from Borealis Bullseyes 4-H Club. They patiently help the younger kids load pellets into air pistols and rifles. They show them how to line up a shot, and squeeze the trigger. Club leaders say they bring volunteers yearly to support this event because someday, these young kids might want to join the Borealis Bullseyes.
Kylie Kroeker teaches the indoor session on safety. She does it because she “wants to help kids think about ways to be safe, and to teach them to help younger kids be safe too.” She also loves seeing people come back year after year, she too grew up coming to youth day.
At each station the instructor reiterates the rules for the range and the rules for that specific activity. Parents occasionally poke at their children, “Pay attention,” is commonly heard. For the most part the kids are attentive and respectful. Some instructors are very upfront about their expectations.
The Range Safety Officer for the slingshot range begins, “Don’t argue with me. I win all the arguments on this range today.” Murdock has been volunteering for 15 years. He reminds the rowdy group he must get through the safety briefing before they can use the slingshots, so they might want to stop and listen.
When asked why he has done this for so many years Murdock responds, “Kids are wonderful… Especially with BBQ sauce!” He’s joking around, but he has serious reasons as well. “If somebody doesn’t take time to teach responsible gun safety and usage, all it takes is one generation and it’s gone.”
SWAT brings their BEAR tactical vehicle and equipment for a show-and-touch. They encourage people to pick up the heavy bulletproof shield. They welcome kids and adults alike into the vehicle and answer any and all questions.
Officer Matt Barth, who has volunteered to work the youth day event for the past 3 or 4 years, gives a tour of the BEAR. “There’s nothing secret in here,” he says, then answers questions about the switch panel. He explains the “blackout” switch, which plunges the vehicle into complete darkness, “In case we need to sneak up on someone.” Then he points to a circular cut-out in the roof and explains how they can stand on a ledge and look out the “turret”.
SWAT also conducts a breaching demonstration. Freestanding doors are placed in the middle of an otherwise empty range. The crowd is reminded that eye and ear protection is required.
Smoke bombs are thrown first. Plumes of smoke are being carried by the wind as the earth shaking explosion blows the doors completely off their hinges. The crowd is surprised by the noise, and watches as the team starts the breach in earnest. Through each doorway they move as one, with an intense precision that shows how many hours they have trained together. It stops as suddenly as it began. The crowd cheers.
Organizing the event
“We start in January planning this event,” Kessler Kroeker said. This is his first year as the coordinator for the 8 – 11 year old group. Kessler grew up coming to NRA Youth Day yearly. It was important to him that he come back as an adult and volunteer. “I participated as a kid, and I want to make sure that all kids have this.”
NRA Youth Day was originally intended for underprivileged youth to have an opportunity to learn gun safety, but the people who put their energy into this free annual event have much more to say.
“There is no political agenda,” shared the Event Coordinator and Youth Shooting Sports Association President, Brian Vanderwood. Pure and simple, “We want to introduce kids to the shooting sports, just as one might introduce a kid to golf or tennis.” He has been Coordinating NRA Youth Day for 13 years. “Voluntold” into the position, he says he was asked to help out a friend one year, the next year they put him in charge of registration, and since then he’s been the Coordinator for the whole event.
“Firearms and shooting can be misunderstood,” says Brian. “We just want kids to have an awareness and opportunity to try out different disciplines and maybe to develop a passion for the shooting sports. We want to promote firearm safety and offer families an opportunity to do something outdoors together.”
For more information about participating in or volunteering for the 2018 NRA Youth Day, visit http://www.agca.net/youthday.
There are many individuals and organizations who make donations to support this free event. Hats off to everyone. Some of the major supporters are: Birchwood Recreation & Shooting Range, Friends of NRA, Safari Club International, Alaska Chapter, Rocky Mountain Elks Foundation and Alaska Waterfowl Association.