Catch-A-Dream Foundation

Town and Gown Magazine
By Richelle Putnam
December 2014
view (pdf) article here

“We can’t change the whole world, but we can change someone’s whole world for at least a short period.”

From childhood to adulthood, dreams play an active role in our lives. Even our nighttime dreams turn into daydreams of what we want to do, who we’d like to be and places we’d like to go. Some dreams remain dreams. Some dreams never come true. Thankfully, some do. Since 2001, the Catch-A-Dream Foundation has helped make dreams comes true for children with life-threatening illnesses.

The originator of the Catch-A-Dream idea, Bruce Brady of Brookhaven, faced his own serious illness: cancer. During his last days, finding strength and comfort in hunting and fishing and the great outdoors, he shared a dream with his family for a program that provided outdoor opportunities to youth with life-threatening illnesses. Because the Make-A-Wish Foundation established a national policy prohibiting the use of “…firearms, hunting bows, or other hunting or sport-shooting equipment,” Bruce knew there was a gap to fill for children who hunted and fished and longed to target special game in places about which they had only dreamed.

“A mutual friend of mine called and asked if Mississippi State University (MSU) could provide some assistance to his friend who was dying of cancer,” said Marty Brunson, CEO of the Catch-A-Dream Foundation. “We were invited to meet with Bruce in Brookhaven.”

That meeting never happened because, sadly, ten days later, Bruce lost his battle with cancer. Even so, his family and friends remained determined to make Bruce’s dream come true.

“I met with his widow, Peggy, and their three adult children to discuss Bruce’s idea,” said Marty, who was then MSU extension leader in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “As we were formulating the idea, we struggled with the central focus. I had done a lot a praying and came up with concept of Isaiah 40:31: “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Before presenting the concept to the entire committee, Marty drove to Brookhaven to meet with Peggy the verse he wanted to adopt as the organization’s central focus. Becoming very emotional, she stepped over to her kitchen window where she kept a daily calendar, the kind where each day was torn off. She told Marty how every morning Bruce came down the stairs and sat at the table to drink his coffee. One day, he came down and said to Peggy, “Something special is going to happen today.” When Peggy went to pour him another cup of coffee, she pulled February 7th off the calendar. Four hours later on February 8, 2000, Bruce was gone.

Peggy had never changed the calendar and she showed Marty what scripture graced February 8, 2000. “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31

“I knew then there was something of great significance happening, and I knew I was in this thing for the duration,” said Marty. This was the first defining Catch-A-Dream moment in his life.

The program made its first dream come true in January 2001. Realizing the idea was much larger than envisioned, the group formed a board of directors, wrote bylaws and in December 2003 chartered the foundation. In addition, they moved Catch-a-Dream from the Wildlife Fisheries Department. Marty had to decide between his wildlife and fisheries career or moving with Catch-a-Dream. This was the second defining moment in Marty Brunson’s life.

“In 2013, the foundation left its incubator at MSU, and we now reside off campus,” said Marty, who spent 32 years with the university. “Had you told me there would be a day that I would be in the full time ministry, I would have said you are wrong.”

Many volunteers help the Catch-A-Dream Foundation accomplish a myriad of tasks, such as helping at the new property southwest of Starkville, facilitating fundraising events, assisting with special activities, writing birthday cards to children who participate in the Catch-a-Dream program and thank you cards to those who contribute to the mission. Children receive a birthday card every year. Every donor receives a cash receipt and a handwritten thank you card thanking them for trusting and investing in Catch-a-Dream.

“Thank you cards have been worth their weight in gold to our donor base because it’s something that a lot of organizations don’t take the time or have a capacity to do,” said Marty. “Almost everyone involved in Catch-A-Dream is a volunteer. We have a very small staff.”

The most significant volunteer level is the “host.” This individual is specifically identified and trained, as well as background screened, because a host travels with the children and the families.

“We’ve had 80 plus individuals over the years go through the certification process,” said Marty. “This allows the family to relax and not worry about anything but enjoying the trip with their child.”

An outfitter, which is the hunting or fishing provider, doesn’t have to be a commercial outfitter. However, it should be able to provide the venue and hunting and fishing experiences on a professional level. Catch-A-Dream outfitters are scattered from the Florida Keys to Alaska and everywhere in between.

Several hundred outfitters have come to the organization offering to provide various services: elk hunting, alligator hunting or shark fishing or sail fishing. “They say they’re here and in the background when Catch-A-Dream needs them and that they’ll donate those services,” said Marty.

Many participating families ultimately give back to Catch-A-Dream in various ways. One father of a child who had survived told Marty, “I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll do whatever it takes to be a host and travel with another child to do what our host did for us.” He is now a host and has accompanied multiple children and families on their Catch-A-Dream experience. “That is the ultimate give back,” said Marty.

The Catch-A-Dream experience includes the entire family. Among these families were the Kains. The child’s name was Julia.

“I didn’t think Julia would qualify as she had already been granted a wish through the Make A Wish Foundation in 2012,” said Tonya Kain, Julia’s mother. “I read the [Catch-A-Dream] website and the eligibility requirements and thought, what the heck, it can’t hurt to apply. Boy, am I glad we did.”

Tonya had grown up hunting with her dad and her husband grew up salt water fishing with his family. They asked Julia what she would like to do and were surprised when she chose hunting.

“Sitting in that deer stand with my daughters, husband, Mr. Bill, and Mr. Jim, watching the focus, excitement and anticipation of my daughter getting ready to shoot her first deer was definitely a highlight,” said Tonya. During the trip, Julia hung out with the other kids and formed a special bond with them. They all had either been through treatments, been poked and prodded by doctors, or witnessed their siblings enduring their treatments. “All the baggage attaches itself to a family that has been through illness or disease. They listened to each other and understood each other and bonded over similar experiences.”

Together with outfitters and local volunteers, the Catch-a-Dream experience nurtures the family and helps them forge strong personal relationships. Hosts, volunteers and families often become best friends and remain that way long after the dream trip concludes.

In planning a trip, Catch-A-Dream considers how many are in the family, the ages of the siblings, the child’s medical condition, the family dynamics and the location that best accomplishes the hunting and fishing desire. Also considered are the outfitter, location and which host would best reach and touch the family and give the greatest experience of the highest magnitude.

“We don’t allow families to tell us exactly where they want to go because we may not have an outfitter, the logistical support, or a particular location,” said Marty. A child from Florida may dream of hunting in the snow. A child from Minnesota may dream of fishing at the beach. “We determine the location that best fits the hunting and fishing desire.”

When Catch-A-Dream began, they didn’t know how to approach or handle the word terminal. “We were afraid the term would not be appropriate,” said Marty. “What we learned early on is that these families come to grips with those things in ways that I can’t imagine, and they are able to talk about it.” Catch-A-Dream kids are wise beyond their years with five to ten-year-olds sometimes being far wiser than forty-year-olds.

“They go through things that force them to turn into young adults. It’s amazing the strength that many of them demonstrate.”

The Catch-A-Dream experience does not end on the last day of the trip. The ultimate experience, the Presentation, facilitated by the host, shares and celebrates the real reason for the trip on the last night.

“Yes, it’s about catching trout in a sparkling Montana stream and seeing those beautiful mountains,” said Marty. “But the real reason is to bring the family together to distribute special gifts to the child and the family.” One such gift is a camouflage covered bible given to the target child. The well siblings, explained Marty, are often left in the background.

“We bring them to the forefront and recognize them for being willing to stand in the shadows while their super star brother or sister is given a lot of things.” Catch-A-Dream inducts the siblings into the Barnabas Club because they step aside while still being supportive and encouraging. Marty pointed out how Isaiah 40:30 also plays an important role in the Catch-a-Dream mission: Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall.

The Catch-A-Dream experience touches everyone, including hosts, volunteers and outfitters. According to Marty, one volunteer eloquently stated, “We can’t change the whole world, but we can change someone’s whole world for at least a short period.”

“We were blown away by the care and love we received,” said Tonya. “They could have just brought us to the ranch, fed us, taken us hunting and sent us home. It still would have been a great experience.” Instead Catch-A-Dream provided the perfect environment to forget everything for a few days and meet other families who understood because they were also dealing with a child’s life-threatening illness. “So many people, even those close to you, can never understand what you and your family go through when dealing with disease.”

Catch-A-Dream received an email from the father of Hunter, a little boy from Colorado who had participated in the Catch-a-Dream program and was now in hospice care. The family had tenderly told Hunter it was near the end. Hunter’s response was something like, “Dad, I know I’m dying. But we’re all dying. It’s just that I’m dying a little quicker.”

Had Marty Brunson been divinely led to Catch-a-Dream to help one man’s dream come true?

“Absolutely,” he said. “God designed this. Had I designed it, it would have gone in a different direction. It is my calling in my life now. God took a simple idea that in 1999 many thought would never work and fulfilled a need never realized before.”

The Catch-A-Dream experience shares with gravely ill children and their families the one true hope – the God who created us and His mighty love and strength that carries them through their darkest hours. “He ordained it and has sustained it to change not only my life, but the lives of many.”