Women participate in a woodworking workshop at a one-day WITO event in Janesville.
Hunt, climb, canoe and make crafts
Women in the Outdoors program makes strides in Wisconsin.
The Women in the Outdoors (WITO) program gives women and girls 14 years and older the opportunity to experience outdoor activities, such as hunting and trapshooting, in a stress-free environment.
The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) started the program 15 years ago. While the nonprofit primarily conserves turkey habitat and maintains turkey hunting standards (it's spent more than $372 million to conserve 17 million acres of wildlife habitat), WITO builds on the federation's values and helps expand its reach to new audiences – women. Funding for WITO is raised through raffles and auctions at WITO events.
"It's not your dad or brother telling you what not to do; it's a place where you are guided by experts who are friendly toward novice women," says Heidi Hayes, a wildlife technician for Dane County who also instructs pistol and rifle-shooting courses at the Wisconsin WITO event. "There are no preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be done."
"I wasn't a turkey hunter or a trap shooter, but I do those things successfully now," says Ronda Lehman, a WITO committee member.
The first WITO event was held in Junction City, Kan., in 1998. Since then, 18 states, including Wisconsin, have hosted WITO events. Nearly 4,000 events have been hosted in the United States and Canada, and have provided workshops for over 80,000 women.
"The experience of learning with a bunch of women who don't know how to do the activities is a much more fulfilling bonding experience," Lehman says. "For the first time, I climbed to the top of the rock wall with my daughter; I wouldn't have done it without other people there to encourage me."
The annual three-day Wisconsin WITO event attracts about 100 women. Many activities focus on areas other than hunting and shooting.
"There's canoeing, rock climbing, hiking, chain sawing, woodworking, ATV classes, dog training and so much more," Lehman says.
Classes in crafts and photography are aimed at those who prefer to examine the beauty of nature.
Linda Hinz, a WITO committee member and the event coordinator, says the program allows women to try something new. It also serves as a way for women to develop friendships based on their interests in the same outdoor activities.
Classes are hands-on and usually last about three hours. An instructor speaks for the first half hour and the remainder of the time is used for women to do the activity.
The three-day event comes once a year, but there also are several one-day events hosted throughout Wisconsin. The one-day events attract 20 to 50 people.
Debra Donath became a member of the WITO committee after attending a three-day event in August 2011.
"Besides having fun, meeting many women with like interests and learning in each of the classes I attended, my life has been enriched," Donath says. "I am empowered in all areas of my life."
In October 2011, Donath hunted and harvested her first black bear. In March, she harvested her first turkey. "I know my experience with WITO is part of enhancing all of my hunts and finding who I am," Donath said.
Teresa Carroll, another committee member, shares Donath's enthusiasm.
"I really like the whole experience," Carroll says. "Not coming from a hunting family I have never held a shotgun or handgun. It is something that boosts your confidence as a female because you know you can use it if you have to."
Amanda Laurenzi is a staff writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.