An old archer, filled with passion and quick of wit, once told me we were “one generation from extinction” and hung on every grizzled word to make sure I remembered it. I didn’t know what he meant at first. I had just joined the Michigan Longbow Association’s council and everything seemed to be trending upward. Our membership was holding at around 390 families and we had healthy attendance at our gatherings and events.
I knew him to be a tad dramatic and told him as much, following a lengthy council meeting in December. “Sure, we are doing fine for now,” he blustered, “but our aging demographic tells a different story, entirely.” He was correct. A peek at the membership numbers added weight to his predictions. The bulk of our members were over the age of 50, and there was a crater-sized valley in the 25-35 demographic.
“So how do we fix it?” I asked.
“The kids,” he said matter-of-factly. “They are the key. If you can get the kids interested, Mom and Dad will follow.”
My perspective changed immediately. It seemed so simple. The MLA would fade away without an injection of young families into our ranks and we were not doing enough to attract them. We were focused inward, on the hunting community, which felt a bit like preaching to the choir. We needed to look outward and into the general public, which was riding the archery-wave thanks to movies like The Hunger Games and TV shows like Arrow.
Fortunately, an opportunity arrived that would do just that. Suzanne Schmier, an MLA member and teacher at West Kelloggsville Elementary, had convinced her colleagues that an “archery day” in April would be the perfect way to reward their 2nd and 3rd graders for hard work and good behavior. She had mentioned her hobby often enough to generate interest and the school was abuzz with curiosity. She reached out to our council, who assigned it to me – the youngest, hungriest, and closest in proximity.
I jumped in with both feet and realized I was in over my head. The details were daunting. We would see over 200 kids, in classes of 30, at 30-minute intervals from 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., which would’ve been a challenge for a seasoned instructor, let alone a novice like me. I knew very little about archery instruction and even less about designing a program. Had it not been for the aforementioned archer, also known as Floyd “Bub” Wells, the event would’ve been a disaster and the MLA youth program might have died on the vine.
Sensing my panic, he intervened, and we began to draft a plan. We would separate the kids into small, manageable, six-person groups and rotate them through four stations:
Station 1: The Anatomy of the Longbow
An MLA coach would cover the components, types, functionality, and history with various examples on hand to hold their attention.
Station 2: The Anatomy of the Arrow
A coach would explain the arrow, how it is constructed, the materials involved, target versus hunting applications, and decoration. The station would end a with a hands-on cresting component. Markers would be used to decorate. Pencils would be crested to give students something to take home.
Station 3: Line Etiquette, Technique, and Safety
A coach would explain range etiquette, basic form, and what not to do with their bow. The dominant hand would be determined here, and each student would be assigned a bow.
Station 4: The Range
Each student would be assigned a coach and take their place on the shooting line. Coaches would control the shot process by handing them one arrow at a time. Balloon-filled, cardboard panels would be pinned to a wall of foam blocks eight yards away. Boards would be re-filled and replaced between rotations, as part of the arrow-pulling process.
We allocated six minutes per station with a short rotation period. While this seemed like very little time to get 2nd and 3rd graders popping balloons with longbows, the results spoke for themselves. The kids popped over 1,000 balloons that first year and learned enough about the longbow to discuss it in class and educate their parents at home. It was a tremendous success and we’ve been invited back every year since.
The 2019 reward day marked our sixth year at West Kelloggsville and was every bit as special as the first. We were smoother, faster, and safer than we’ve ever been and the kids were more successful as a result. It was not uncommon for a 3rd grader to remember what we taught them in 2nd grade. Some of them even remembered their assigned coach from the year before. Each student popped an average of four balloons and I saw several pop ten by buzzer’s end. Every kid left with a smile on their face and a bounce in their step. Every coach left with a full heart and a satisfaction that is too pure to describe with written words.
The Michigan Longbow Association has come a long way since those early efforts. It participates in six-to-eight youth outreach opportunities per year and puts thousands of kids behind the riser annually. The effect has been noticeable. Active memberships have increased from approximately 390 to 520 in six years. Many of these are young families who regularly volunteer at MLA gatherings and outreach events. Some have even become council members. While the numbers are a wonderful benefit, any council member will tell you it is the engagement that is truly special. The MLA is now the most active longbow-only organization in the country and is showing no signs of slowing down.
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The Michigan Longbow Association is a 501c3 educational nonprofit. You can find out more about the MLA by visiting www.michiganlongbow.org.