A Mississippi State University alumnus’s dedication to sharing his passion for the outdoors has resulted in a national honor.
Jay Stokes, a 2007 graduate of MSU’s College of Forest Resources, was honored as a Field and Stream magazine Hero of Conservation. The honor recognizes individuals who conduct extremely effective hunting- or fishing-related conservation projects.
Stokes founded Break-Away Outdoors while in college. This non-profit organization provides unique adventures for young people. Its goal is to instill in them a love for the outdoors.
"I was working for Dr. Eastman, an orthodontist in Starkville, helping him maintain his deer population through the Deer Management Assistance Program," Stokes said. "It was an ideal part-time job for an avid hunter like me. I was able to help a landowner manage his deer population and hunt."
During that time, Stokes realized that many Mississippians never get the chance to hunt or fish. He thought if they did, they might be more interested in conserving the state’s important natural resources.
At 23 years old, Stokes and his roommate, fellow forest products student Justin Wilkes, brought together a group of seven foster children from the Columbus-based Palmer Home to teach them to hunt.
"We had no idea what we were doing, but it felt like the right thing," Stokes said. "We took them hunting, fed them lunch and the rest is history."
That first hunt took place in October 2003, and Stokes and Wilkes have not missed a year since. They continued to organize deer hunts and have added fishing trips, dove hunts and duck hunts to their offerings.
"We wanted to create something for kids who didn’t qualify for similar programs. We saw a gap between organizations like Make-a-Wish or Catch-a-Dream, which provide wonderful experiences for children that are terminally ill," Wilkes said.
Though the first group of participants resided at the Palmer Home, living at the facility is not a requirement. Since 2003, Break-Away Outdoors has not turned away any young person between the ages of 9 and 15 who has little to no experience outdoors but has a desire to learn, Wilkes said.
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks supports the nonprofit organization. The goal of Break-Away Outdoors is more than just to provide outdoor hunting adventures for children who have not had these opportunities.
"We teach them community-based hunting and responsibility," Stokes said. "They learn compassion for others and confidence in themselves."
Once young people participate, they often want to come back.
"Many of the children who attend one year come back the next year as volunteers," Wilkes said.
For Stokes, the honor pales in comparison to the sense of accomplishment he feels when a young person catches a fish for the first time or sees a deer in the woods.
"I am fortunate to work with 12 members of my graduating class in this venture," Stokes said. "Teaching kids to conserve and protect America’s wildlife and wild places is truly an honor."