By Mark Demko
Seventeen-year-old Elisbeth Tejada-Moya walks into the classroom, shaking the water off her coat. She’s just taken a 15-minute bus ride from her school, followed by a 15-minute walk in the rain, to get to an afterschool program where she learns about foxes, firearms safety and forestry, all in the same afternoon.
While many kids might opt to skip a voluntary program like this on a day when the weather is so bad, one after another the students file into the room eager to learn their next lesson. The reason? They’re part of Camp Compass Academy, one of the most innovative outdoor mentoring programs in the nation.
“When I come here, I feel safe. It’s like home,” Tejada-Moya says. “I started coming to this program last year, and as soon as I did, everybody was so fun and so nice. For people to do that when you come in, you feel loved. So, I said, ‘Why not continue coming and learn?’”
A Challenging Start
Growing up in a housing project in Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, John Annoni needed an escape from troubles at home and in the projects. He found it in an adjacent woodlot, where he would marvel at the birds and squirrels while dreaming of far-off destinations he’d read about in magazines like Boys’ Life.
“I allowed Mother Nature—the squirrels, the starlings and the rat—to consume me by me chasing them,” Annoni says. “What I found was that when I was doing that, there was an absence of worry. Mother Nature, her critters and that pursuit saved me.
“One day I saw a ringnecked pheasant in a dump. It was the most beautiful bird I’d ever seen. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I went back weekend after weekend after weekend to see if I could find it again. That’s where the passion first came from.”
From those humble beginnings, Annoni developed a rich fascination with the outdoors, learning to fish and hunt and ultimately deciding to pay it all back while serving as a teacher in the Allentown School District. He started Camp Compass in 1994. But rather than setting up shop at a local rod-and-gun club, he opted to stay in inner city Allentown and make a difference in the lives of the students who might need it most.
“I was sitting in the classroom, working with the kids, the same kids I’m working with now, thinking that the books aren’t cutting it,” he says. “I was coaching basketball, and I just really wanted to do something I thought could change lives.
“In the city, there are enough [afterschool] programs, but there was nothing here that was based on what helped me as a kid. I looked around and started working with kids, using an outdoor curriculum.”
Today, Camp Compass is widely recognized as one of the most unique outdoors education models in the country. The nonprofit organization is geared towards introducing inner-city youth to hunting and the shooting sports. While Annoni is reluctant to put a figure on how many individuals he’s impacted, he says thousands of students have been exposed to the outdoors via Camp Compass, while well over 200 have gone through every level of the program.
Growing Kids Through the Outdoors
Through Camp Compass Academy, students are introduced to firearms safety, hunting and shooting over an extended period of time, something that’s especially important since most come from families that have little to no exposure to the outdoors pursuits. Visit the classroom and you’ll see individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds, both male and female, soaking up everything Annoni and the other academy instructors have to share.
The curriculum is broken into five levels called “The 5Es”—Exposure, Exploration, Extension, Effective Application and Example Mentoring—and students work their way through the stages over a period of years. Annoni says the most important level is Extension, where the kids participate in the academy weekly.
“Growing kids into [hunters] in a place that’s nontraditional (like downtown Allentown) is not only high-risk, it’s high reward,” he says. “It has to be very strategic, and that’s what we’ve built here. We are as diverse as it comes and that is the beauty of us.”
When students enter Camp Compass, they must first prove their dedication to learning and their classmates before they head afield. In fact, an individual has to complete two years before he’s even able to go on a hunt. The reason: Annoni’s goal is not to just take them hunting, but to help make them hunters. That’s why the most dedicated students end up heading afield on multiple occasions, sometimes traveling to destinations as far away as North Carolina, Texas and North Dakota to pursue big and small game.
Petersen’s Bowhunting Editor Christian Berg says Annoni has been successful with his students because he’s authentic.
“He came out of the Allentown projects and faced many of the same struggles as today’s teens,” says Berg, who’s known Annoni for two decades. “The outdoors was instrumental in shaping his life and helping him achieve personal success. Now, as an educator and passionate outdoorsman, he is pouring his life back into the lives of others.
“There are many, many great things about the Camp Compass program, but, at its essence, I believe one of the big reasons it succeeds is because John sees himself in his students and his students see themselves in him.”
Talk to the students and it’s easy to see the passion they have for the program and their mentor. Sixteen-year-old Hector Buxo, who comes from a family that doesn’t hunt, says his parents were surprised when he told them he wanted to join Camp Compass. Now, five years in, he has pursued whitetail deer, Canada goose, pheasant, turkey and more.
“I liked how different this was from the other programs there were,” Buxo says. “It was something totally new. I really liked how we all work together, and we all talk together.”
Shane Reznick, 14, who has been in Camp Compass for two years, agrees the comradery between students is what makes the program work.
“It’s a community of people as well as hunters,” he says. “We learn a lot about the environment, protecting the environment and making sure you respect the animals.”
Beyond the Classroom
As a result of Camp Compass and his work introducing others to the outdoors, Annoni has been featured on outdoor television shows and national news like CNN and NBC Nightly News. In 2008, Outdoor Life named him one of the 25 most influential people in hunting and fishing, and two years ago he was one of the first non-faculty members selected as a co-principal investigator for a Cornell Lab of Ornithology National Science Foundation study. Not surprisingly, he receives high praise from others in the industry.
“John has quietly gone about his mission of reaching inner-city youth for decades,” says Mossy Oak’s Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland. “He does it with little money, little support from the hunting industry, little exposure—but big passion. He reaches kids we cannot because he was one of them. His story is amazing, and he makes me humble.”
After a quarter-century leading Camp Compass, Annoni is as committed as ever to his students, but he is also looking for other ways he can help grow hunting and shooting sports. As a person of color, one area he feels he can lend his expertise is in broadening diversity and inclusion efforts. He also wants to share the Camp Compass philosophy with others from coast to coast, as well as start teaching adults who want to learn about mentoring in the hunting and the shooting sports. While acknowledging it would be hard to start other Camp Compass-type programs due to the time required, he says he’s proud of the work he, his assistants and Camp Compass supporters have done over the past quarter-century.
“I did not think I would be doing this program this many years later because of the stamina that it takes,” he says. “I knew that somewhere along the journey, whether it was five or eight years in, that we were going to impact kids and families who would not have been impacted otherwise.
“Is it practical to say Camp Compass will be celebrating a 50-year anniversary? No, that’s not practical. But, while I’m still breathing and able to help, the Camp Compass philosophy can be shared across the country and what people do with it is their choice.”
John Annoni and Camp Compass clearly demonstrate that mentoring is key to growing hunting and the shooting sports. NSSF’s +ONESM Movement, which encourages all active hunters and target shooters to extend an invitation to someone new and show them how safe and enjoyable these pastimes are, works to achieve the same goal, but on a nationwide basis. Annoni says the National Shooting Sports Foundation is a keystone when it comes to recruiting and retention in the hunting and shooting sports.
“Its +ONE Movement is a critical initiative. It is really needed and it is able to move the needle with the long arms it has. NSSF is positioned like no one else to impact the future of hunting.
“While my focus has been primarily youth, lately adults have been reaching out to me about hunting,” Annoni added. “The +ONE Movement has the ability to be a spectrum of support for people of all ages.”
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