By Cortney Mumaugh
Sentinel Correspondent
OTTAWA - Anji Schmersal admitted she was not fond of the idea of starting a 4-H gun club with fears of gun safety around her children, but through intensive training and education, her views have changed.
Schmersal and her husband, Rob, started the Shooting Stars Shooting Sports 4-H Club three years ago when their son became interested in learning how to shoot.
"Our son became interested and I like to shoot," said Rob. "Putnam County was one of the few counties in Ohio that did not have a 4-H shooting sports program."
The Schmersals then took on the challenge of starting a new club. With the help and guidance of Jason Hedrick, Putnam County 4-H Youth Advisor, they began their journey. They went to the weekend-long certification training from the state 4-H shooting sports program. You cannot run a shooting club without taking and passing the test and becoming certified. It took the couple a year to decide if they were willing to take on this huge project. Rob is certified in shot gun, rifle, rifle advanced. Anji is certified in rifle, living history and hunting and wildlife. They are thinking about expanding the program to include archery or pistol in the coming years.
Part of that process includes getting funding, a lot of which comes through grants. According to Rob, the club is mainly funded through Friends of the National Rifle Association. Starting off the club received a 4-H Foundation Grant which helped provide a lot of the start up equipment. Now they can maintain their equipment and keep costs low for the children through the NRA. Kalida Fish and Game Club allows the use of their facility for the group to practice on free of charge. Tri-R-Guns and Ottawa Ordnance have been supportive of the new club according to Rob. The club supplies the guns so they know that everything has been cleaned, cared for and serviced properly.
"We started New Horizon's 4-H Club six years ago. We have five children and saw it as an area that our family could stay together instead of separating genders," said Anji. "That's why we were drawn to 4-H. We appreciate their motto and what they believe in. That's how we found out about shooting sports."
The club currently offers shoot gun and rifle. People can also take living history, hunting and wildlife without being a member of the club. Currently the kids, girls and boys, range in age from 9 to 18, but can go up to 19. Rob said the first year they limited the number of children because it was the first year and they were not sure what to expect. On average, there are 15-20 kids each year. The club usually shoots twice a month from February through July. Everything is target practice - there is no hunting with the club. At the end of the year, the club takes part in a regional event with four or five other counties.
"We focus a lot on safety," said Rob. "That's our goal; to teach gun safety and have fun while doing it." When a child is interested in the program, they have to take part in a safety program at the beginning of the year, regardless of how many years they have shot.
"Our insurance for the shooting sports club is no higher than any other club; actually the horse clubs are higher than ours because the measure of safety that we take is so high. We don't have the accidents. If you follow through with what you've been trained on, you're pretty strict on the range. The kids know that. We have never had a problem in three years," added Anji. "The kids are really good about calling out themselves if they see someone without earplugs or safety glasses. It's very important to be pro-active in fire arm training...We want people to learn about guns, but to do it properly so there are not accidents. So that children know how to handle it. Our children, whether they are interested in shooting or not, have to go through the program - that's just a requirement of our home because we have guns in our home."
Parents play a large role in this program. Fathers especially, according to Anji, seem to bond with their child at the range. Mothers are always welcome and have shot as well. At the end of the shoots, parents are usually given the opportunity to shoot. Anji said this gives people the opportunity to have gun exposure to people who generally do not interact with guns. Parents have also be crucial in volunteering and helping on the range.
"Guns don't kill people; people kill people. They are safe if they're handled properly," said Rob. Anji added, "Guns are one of those things that can be a touchy subject for a lot of people. I was against pistols in the beginning. One of the things that we have learned through 4-H is to start children on long guns or a shot gun because they are larger. It's further away from their heads, it's heavier and they have to have more control versus a hand gun or pistol which is much lighter. I've seen that it can be a healthy sport. Our goal is to make people aware and welcome them. Sharing facts and having families come to safety trainings and see that Rob does not hand a gun to anyone unless their hands are on it in the proper places and they say 'thank you' and he says' you're welcome' and releases the gun. It's a very specific thing but we've never heard anything negative and a lot of positives from children and adults on how strict things are run."
Anji said she enjoys watching the children hit the target for the first time and seeing them progress as the months and year go on. She said some children can go almost a whole year without being about to hit a target. "We started this for our son and because Rob was interested. It was also to bring the community together. This, to us, is a life-long sport. Basketball and baseball, you start to get a little older and it's a little harder to get around. If you have any physical disabilities, with shooting, you are able to adapt to any disabilities you may have," she said. "From young child to the grandfather, it's a legacy that a lot of families are fond of."
For more information on the club or 4-H contact Jason Hedrick at 1206 E. Second St. (the old LP Building.) or call 419-523-6294.