By Bill Pankonin, Regional Owner, EXIT Realty Upper Midwest
A few years ago, I happened to be with one of my sons and a couple friends at a restaurant during a winter fishing trip in the Northwest Angle of Minnesota. Near our table I could hear giggling and laughing from a group of eight-to-twelve-year-old kids dressed in big snow boots, fluffy clothes and coonskin caps. They were so fired up! I noticed that the face of one boy in particular was really chubby. I think those of us who have been around a long time can recognize when somebody is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. This little boy had just caught the biggest fish of the day and his buddies were congratulating him.
I asked one of the adults what was going on and he told me it was a group from The Outdoor Adventure Foundation (OAF), an organization that takes combat wounded veterans and kids with life threatening illnesses on a trip of a lifetime like fishing, hunting, or to Disney. The person I was speaking with recognized me from my involvement with another organization and he invited me to get involved with OAF. The timing wasn’t right for me then, but nine years ago, they asked me to start a Minnesota chapter, and MNOAF was born. The next year we held our first fundraising banquet and since then we’ve grown every year. Just before the pandemic we had taken out more than 200 kids and veterans on trips of a lifetime.
At last year’s fundraiser, we awarded a fishing trip to a 12-year-old boy named Brody. In 2017 Brody developed a cancer with a name so long I can’t pronounce it. Recipients are awarded a gift certificate on stage, and we install a ramp because many of them use wheelchairs or walkers. Brody wanted to come up to the stage with his walker by himself without help from his parents. I was very nervous because he was so weak, but he did it.
As the Regional Owner of EXIT Realty Upper Midwest, I wanted to get EXIT involved because we have offices across the communities where MNOAF operates. Brody’s trip was donated by Trent Eineichner, and Jennifer Martinson of EXIT Realty Bemidji, way up in northern Minnesota. Trent looks like a lumberjack. He’s a very calming, big guy and he is a professional fishing guide. He’s lives in the land of Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox. I knew he would take care of Brody and his family.
A few months later, Trent took this frail young boy and his family on their fishing trip. And wouldn’t you know it, this little guy hooked into a 72-inch lake sturgeon! This kid is only about 52 inches tall, so the fish was bigger than he was! Lake sturgeon are dinosaur-looking fish. They have the body characteristics of a shark because they have cartilage. A boat gets very small when there’s a fish that big on board. Photos were taken of Brody lying beside his catch and holding it on his lap before it was returned back to the water to spawn.
To commemorate their unbelievable trip, MNOAF decided to get a replica made of that fish. At first, I couldn’t find anybody to do it because although they’re a trophy, not too many people keep them. Because of my connections through EXIT Realty, I found a taxidermist in Oshkosh, Wisconsin who could do it, so while on a business trip there, I arranged to pick up the replica and in put it in my truck. I forgot how long it was and it barely fit! So, here I was with a six-foot sturgeon in the back of my truck going from Wisconsin to my meetings in Chicago, back to Minnesota, through Wisconsin again and back home to Minnesota. That fish has a lot of miles on it!
We gave the fish to Brody as a surprise at our recent annual banquet. From a real estate standpoint, their house is going to get small real fast! Good luck finding a place to put a six-foot fish!
MNOAF is dear to my heart because I think anytime you’re a parent or grandparent and your kids and grandkids are healthy, it’s really a blessing. I’m an outdoor nut so I just love seeing these kids get out of the hospital or Ronald McDonald House because many haven’t been home or in school. I’ve noticed that for a lot of these kids, after they get cancer, their friends stop coming around because their illness goes on and on. Often they and their parents are alone in the world and they are going through a tremendous amount of suffering. Their parents are dealing with their jobs, trying to live a normal life and sometimes they have other children and all the focus is on the one who is very, very ill. So, a trip from MNOAF is a way for them to get a break and create a memory that will last for what is sometimes a very short lifetime.