Preserving heritage, promoting conservation and developing responsible adults will be among the purposes of the Bennett Family — Arkansas Waterfowl Association Outdoor Recreation Center for Youth. “This is truly an exciting day for the Arkansas Waterfowl Association,” master of ceremony Ronnie Evans remarked at the Center’s groundbreaking held Friday.
Guests at the groundbreaking included Wayne Bennett, Camille Bennett, state Senators Jonathan Dismang and Eddie Joe Williams and state Representative Walls McCrary.
AWA president-elect Jamie Anderson opened with remarks on the origins and goals of AWA, other speakers included Williams, Dismang and McCrary.
Plans for the 160-acre were unveiled by AWA member Blake Harrison at the April 4 Lonoke Area Chamber of Commerce meeting. The donation by the Bennett Family of Lonoke, “Is a gift of God through a very generous family,” Harrison said at the meeting. The AWA had been searching for at least 40 acres for the planned youth center.
“I want to thank the Bennett Family … without them the next step would not be taking place,” Anderson remarked Friday.
The land is in central Lonoke County, between the Woodlawn community and the Wattensaw area, on Arkansas Highway 31. The groundbreaking was held on a section at the junction of Fairview Road and Highway 31.
Anderson recalled that in 2002 about a dozen people met at the Remington Arms gun club where they decided to change how wildlife conservation is promoted in Lonoke County. The group realized that unless activities for youth were promoted, “The way of life that we know and what we enjoy was surely going to just slowly fade away,” he said.
The mission of the association is to improve and maintain wildlife habitat through the education of youth and adults about the importance of stewardship of natural resources; proper sportsmanship; and ethics in hunting and fishing.
While the adults of today grew up in an environment of outdoor activities, it is no longer that way, Anderson said. “The kids of today… just do not have that opportunity … Through AWA, we want to bridge that gap,” he said.
The first youth camp, an overnight session at the Double D Duck Club, was about 10 years ago, Anderson said. There are now more than 50 youth attending the tenth camp.
The goal of the camp is to have a good time while learning morals and values that may be overlooked in today’s society, Anderson said. It about following rules of the camp and the rules set out by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, he said.
It is not only about hunting but also the crafts and skills that go along with the outdoor environment such as leather craft, knife making, dog training, gun safety, archery and other interests, Anderson said.
McCrary remarked that, “[the AWA members] are the most committed, passionate bunch I have ever seen. Nothing they won’t try, nothing they won’t do, to get it done.” He pledged to do whatever he could do to help the youth center.
It is all about the youth, “It think this is a wonderful opportunity to have something for them,” McCrary said. “A lot of us who are older took it all for granted because we were always outside.”
This is not about only Lonoke County but central Arkansas and the entire state, McCrary said. Once the center is “up and running,” people will have to schedule times to use the facility, he predicted.
McCrary also praised the Bennett family, which has been involved with development in Lonoke County for many years.
Williams remarked that news broadcasts would not be telling about the AWA youth, but about “kids that went awry, that they just have no direction in life.”
“This program will do what America needs, to teach kids about values, principles and morals, good sportsmanship, how to effectively and safely be a gun owner. Those are the things that make this community great,” Williams said.
Dismang remarked that there is a group of youth growing up with no idea of what it means to hunt, or to learn the discipline that goes with hunting, or experience the camaraderie, of friends, of parent and child, that goes along with it, he said.
“There is a world that’s being created … that has no idea and has no understanding of what you are doing here,” Dismang said.
At the April unveiling, Harrison remarked that, “We realize what our youth are going through … we realize that more than ever in history our youth are being challenged for their time.” With so much technology around, “We need to engage our youth to bring them back to heritage and tradition,” he said.
The times that youth learned of the outdoors from parents and grandparents are becoming fewer, Harrison said. The Youth Recreation Center will help fill in that growing gap, Harrison said.
A non-profit foundation has been established to ensure the center is properly operated and to raise funds for that operation, Harrison said. “There is going to be a cost to run this, but we are ready to tackle it,” he said.
“We want to develop a Disney-like concept of hunting and fishing. We want to compete with playing baseball year-round, we want to compete with iPhones … we want to compete with the technology that is seeking out our kids,” Harrison said.
Initial plans are for a number of “adventure centers” such as firearms education, hunter education, wildlife education center, rimfire range, archery, dog training area and course, a field trials area and all-terrain vehicle safety course, concealed-carry classes for women, Harrison said. ATV safety courses would be in conjunction with Farm Bureau and Arkansas Children’s Hospital, he said.
“We hope to have the coolest .22 course across the country,” Harrison said.
Single events in many of the interests covered by the adventure centers have drawn participants from hundreds of miles away, Harrison said.
This will be a great benefit for everyone, thanks to the Bennett Family, Harrison said.