Monday, March 04, 2024

If time’s flying, give some away

| February 12, 2023 12:00 AM

I’m surprised how quiet it is.

As I opened the door to the space below the grandstand at the Flathead County Fairgrounds, I braced myself for the hundreds of kids that my buddy Dennis Urban said would be there.

He was right. There were hundreds of kids, but they were deeply absorbed: in their air rifles, safety protocol and targets. The shots they took sounded like raindrops on a tin roof.

Parents sat along the back wall while the kids in the 4-H Shooting Sports program — the biggest in the state — fired away in groups arranged according to experience.

“When they start out, the goal is, hit the paper” — never mind the targets printed on it, said Urban, who got started when his kid joined the program. Thirty-three years on, he still spends Mondays and Thursdays from November to March patrolling the lines of shooters from 9 to 18 years old, giving tips and asking questions.

Rayna Mercer, 17, comes down from Whitefish to shoot weekly. Cascading red hair frames her pink safety glasses. Her phone juts out of her back pocket. She lifts her rifle many times and confers quietly with her adult sitting behind her, who inspects the target at the far side of the room with binoculars.

After her 30 shots, Mercer waits until the range is clear before checking the results. I ask how she did.

“Pretty good!” The patience and discussion paid off.

“Did you learn anything you didn’t know before?” Urban asks.

“Yeah,” she says, “how to use the sights.”

Kristi Davis, the county coordinator for shooting sports, said the program has about 100 kids in rifle, another 130 in archery. Kids pay $2 per session, and most use club equipment, supported by a booth at the fair.

Parent George Darrow brought his four kids: two are in archery, and the youngest ones color with crayons brought in by another longtime volunteer, Marcia Burns.

It’s the Darrows’ first year in the program. When the club’s recent invitational came up, Darrow says his eldest said, “‘I’ll try it!” He was nervous, but he came in first.”

The competition and the practice couldn’t happen without the many adult volunteers in orange safety vests. According to a biannual report issued last month by the U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps, Montana ranks ninth in “formal volunteering” (through organizations) and first in “informal,” say, helping someone fix a flat.

Regardless, research shows that volunteers receive more than they give: from increased connection and experience, to benefits for mind and body, and feelings of fun and fulfillment.

Cassie Mogilner, a Wharton professor who conducted studies about volunteering, found that those who gave their time felt they then had more of it. In an interview, she said, “People who give time feel more capable, confident, and useful.” After volunteering, she said, “they feel more effective, and that enhances their productivity.”

By giving time at the range, the volunteers make more time for themselves, even if it’s not their aim.

For Urban, it’s simple. He lights up quoting Pat McVay, who founded the shooting sports program in Montana: “Time spent with a kid is never wasted.”

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at

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