On a sunny May morning, Hazen Stokes, surrounded by friends and family, waited patiently inside the hunting blind. The night before, the hunting group waited six hours to see if a turkey would pass through. Three long hours passed, and a turkey strutted into Hazen’s view. Hazen breathed in and out as he set his dad’s 12-gauge shotgun on the animal. Hazen gently squeezed the trigger and less than a second later, shot his first turkey. 

“I just dropped him … I thought I was gonna miss him for a second,” he said.

“I didn’t, I knew you were good,” Steve Stokes, Hazen’s dad, said. “We’ve been practicing, you were ready, you got it.”

The other members of the hunting party, Curtis Slaugh, Gentry Stokes and Hazen’s brother and sister, were ecstatic. 

“When he shot and hit the turkey, it was the most exciting moment ever,” Slaugh said. “It wasn’t about harvesting the turkey, it was about being with family.” 

An exciting moment indeed — the Stokes family was overjoyed that their youngest member was able to shoot a turkey. Hazen and his late twin were born prematurely at five months gestation. Unfortunately, the family lost Hazen’s twin early in his life. Hazen has had 14 surgeries in his lifetime. He’s 12 years old now and full of life, according to his parents. 

“Now, he is loving life and he loves every second and he doesn’t want to miss a moment,” Gentry Stokes, Hazen’s mother, said. “As a family, we love the outdoors. We find that when we’re outdoors, we make memories together as a family. We enjoy each other’s company and they’re priceless.”

Hazen’s first hunting experience wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the Utah Outdoor Adventure Foundation. The small group of Utah hunters, Curtis Slaugh, Leslye Leslie and John Rogers, take kids with life-threatening illnesses into the great outdoors for a chance to harvest an animal. In the past, they’ve offered turkey, elk, deer and mountain lion tags, along with fishing opportunities.

Twelve-year-old Hazen Stokes poses for photos with his parents, Steve and Gentry Stokes, and sister and brother, Harlee and Sloan Stokes, at Glasmann Pond in Ogden on Saturday, July 29, 2023. Hazen was born prematurely, and has had numerous surgeries to deal with health issues in his young life. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Slaugh originally had the idea to open a chapter of the foundation in Utah while watching “Dream Makers” on The Outdoor Channel. He contacted the foundation and they encouraged him to open a chapter in Utah, so he did. 

He asked his good friend, Leslie, to help find kids to take on hunts and they’ve built and grown the foundation from the ground up. 

Leslie has been a physical therapist for 24 years. She’s helped people who were told they could never walk again learn to run. This foundation is an extension of the work she does.

“It is such an honor, that this foundation gives us the avenue to take people that literally were told, ‘You’re not going to make it, you’ll never be able to achieve this, you get to sit in the car … to make it happen,” she said. 

Since starting the foundation in 2020, Slaugh, Leslie and Rogers have helped six kids achieve their goals with four turkey hunts, one elk hunt and one mountain lion hunt. 

“It’s fun, I enjoy it,” Slaugh said. “They come in and I always tell them, ‘You know these are wild animals, there’s a chance we might not get one.’ But just getting to know ’em and spending time with ’em … it’s incredible.”

Tonya Kieffer-Selby, conservation outreach manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife and Resources, has worked closely with Slaugh and the foundation. 

Kieffer-Selby said hunting is less about the killing of an animal, but rather the balance between animal population and conservation efforts. There are benefits of harvesting an animal like having organic meat, learning a skill and experiencing the outdoors.

“It’s a way to build tradition and camaraderie with family and friends … because anytime you can interact with wildlife one on one, whether that is hunting and harvesting or hunting and just watching. It’s a very pure natural experience,” she said.

The Utah Outdoor Adventure Foundation is run by hunters who want to give back, she said. 

“It’s not something that you see everywhere. These people are willing to give of themselves and give back to make sure that people have the same experiences that they have had in their content life,” she said. “They’re giving someone an experience that, depending on their disability, maybe they’re needing a break mentally, maybe they’re needing some kind of outlet to keep them from being focused on the fact that they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness.”

The foundation provides everything the kids need for a chance to succeed including tags, licenses the family’s hotel, meals and practice. There is never a guarantee that a kid will harvest an animal but Slaugh and Leslie try their best to give every kid their best shot. 

Slaugh and Leslie said they’ve been very lucky to have so many donations in the past. One year, the Western Conservation Foundation donated four turkey tags, which was a huge help for the foundation. 

The Utah Outdoor Adventure Foundation is always looking for more kids to apply. Slaugh and Leslie hope their program continues to grow and create opportunities for kids to experience the great outdoors. 

Steve Stokes said working with the foundation has been a wonderful experience for them. 

“They did everything they could do to help Hazen have a great experience. And I think that for us when we were going through so many hard times … you can’t see the good times ahead,” he said. “The Utah Outdoor Adventure program just giving these experiences to us — helped us know that we can have good times and there are good times ahead.”