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At a banquet for young hunters, a conservation police officer gave the usual advice about hunting safety and regulations, but his message about ethics and doing the right thing in life transcended the sport and gave everyone a little food for thought.
In addition to the meal, there are drawings for prizes, a silent auction, a demonstration of duck calling and other fun activities. This year, even the director of IDNR, Marc Miller, attended as the keynote speaker. But most important of all of this is the part of the evening when a conservation police officer (CPO), the game warden, talks to the young hunters.
Steve Vasicek has been a conservation police officer with IDNR for 11 years. He started his career at Peoria in Woodford County on the Illinois River. Currently, he serves as the game warden for both Union and Pulaski counties within District 16 for IDNR's Office of Law Enforcement.
"I've been in this district for about six years now," Vasicek said. "It's an amazing place. There's so much public hunting opportunity down here. It's unlike any other place in the state as far as I'm concerned because there are so many places to go - whether you want to hunt clubs, whether you want to hunt private, public, whatever. Between the refuges, the Shawnee National Forest, Union County Refuge - all those places have so much opportunity. That's one of the reasons I chose this district."
When Vasicek speaks to kids about his job and their own responsibilities, he goes over safety, the laws and regulations governing hunting, and ethics - a lot about ethics. What he imparts to the youth is a little different from what many would expect in a talk about hunting.
Vasicek addressed close to 50 youth who signed up for the hunt this year. Some of it, the kids had heard before because hunting ethics is taught in the hunter safety education classes that they must take to obtain a hunting license.
During his remarks, Vasicek pointed out that there are many more people who don't hunt than those who do, so it's very important that hunters are respectful of the laws and the regulations so that they don't turn those people against their sport.
"When we have hunting accidents, when we have people that leave trash out there when they hunt, when people disobey rules and trespass on people's properties, when they have no regard for laws or people's feelings or rights, what do you think that gives the people that don't hunt the right to say?" Vasicek asked. "It makes them think that we don't obey the laws and that we're a bunch of slobs. That's not the case. Whenever something is done like that, it always puts us all in a bad light."
He explained to the young hunters that there is a purpose to youth hunts and other activities and courses.
"Who is the future of hunting?" he asked the kids, looking for an answer in the crowd. "You are? Exactly. So why are we doing this today with you? Why is this important? We want to see [hunting] done right in the future, not because we want to eat a good meal and blow a few duck calls. We want to see people with respect for the outdoors. That is what it's all about."
Vasicek had begun his talk by asking, "What's important to you right now, as young hunters and young people? Hunting is something we do for fun, we do for sport. What are the most important things right now? What's more important than hunting? Your family. And your school, your education, right? You have to represent the sport in a manner by which people are going to [see] us in a good light, and not just with hunting, but with school. Get good grades. Do your best."
Although he was talking to the kids, his words were a reminder to everyone there.
"A long time ago we were all in school. We didn't really realize how important it was until we got older. Some people made bad decisions; some people made good ones. As you get older you start thinking: I should have done better on this. I should have done better at that," he said. "How do you think you're going to be able to get a job that you love? By doing bad in school? Or doing good in school? It's so simple. You have to be your own person in life."
Vasicek gave an example of kids in school who are in trouble all the time and asked, "Do you think those kids are going to get better or worse? A lot of times they get worse."
He told the kids not to let themselves be pressured into bad behavior by their peers: "Walk away. Those people will bring you down. Don't participate in those kinds of things. If you do, it doesn't matter what kind of upbringing you get. It doesn't matter how good of parents you have, or grandparents, aunts, uncles. As we become older, it becomes more important that we do the right thing, that we make good decisions."
Vasicek reminded them that getting into trouble can affect their hunting by having their privileges revoked and even losing their firearm owner's identification card, which in Illinois is required to possess a gun. He encouraged the young hunters to become role models.
"Think about the people in your class as your team," Vasicek said. "I'm going to be down here for a long time. I don't want to hear about anybody bullying anybody else because you have to think about how you want to be remembered. How do you want to be remembered by your classmates? Do you want to be remembered as a bully? Or do you want to be the one that's remembered as the one that always wanted to help somebody when they're in trouble? How do you want to be remembered in your life? Do your best at everything."