When Russell Dorton moved back to his hometown of Jena, Louisiana, in 2010, neither he nor anyone else could have predicted the impact he would have on a group of special needs students at Jena High School. The boy who had played baseball for the Jena Giants had come full circle, returning to his alma mater to teach and coach baseball.
The story doesn't end there, however, because Russell has another passion besides baseball and teaching. While playing ball for a junior college team in Pratt, Kansas, he was introduced to the sport of duck hunting by some friends. It was love at first flight. He became smitten with waterfowling, and later his ardor inspired his students to follow a dream of their own.
"It was during our back-to-school party when one of my students approached me about the idea of making duck calls," Russell explains. "We had cupcakes with the Duck Dynasty crew imprinted on the frosting, and that is where the student came up with the idea. Although I love duck hunting, I had no idea how to build a duck call, but I figured we'd give it a try."
After securing a $600 loan from the school's principal, Glenn Joiner, Russell and his students purchased a lathe and jig and got down to the work of building duck calls. "We started selling a few calls around town and were able to pay back the original $600 pretty quick," Russell says.
One of the calls eventually wound up in the hands of Tommy Jackson, DU's regional director for north Louisiana. Impressed by the call's quality and intrigued by its origins, Tommy called Russell to find out how Ducks Unlimited could help support his student call makers. "I remember speaking with Tommy by phone," Russell says. "We set a time to meet in person, and not long after that he came by the school. I was blown away that someone from Ducks Unlimited wanted to hear our story."
It didn't take long for a partnership to bloom. Tommy purchased 13 calls and used them as fundraising items at local DU events in north Louisiana. The deal became a winning proposition for the students and the ducks. Funds raised from selling the calls to DU events allow the students to take educational field trips across the state, and the proceeds earned at DU events support the organization's conservation mission.
"Our special education supervisor, Ms. Ethel Smith, has given us anything we've ever asked for to help enhance the lives of these students," Russell says. "She has not only authorized all our field trips, but has also helped get a bus specifically for this class."
Wallace and his students have made wooden and acrylic calls over the years, and have even begun making their own inserts. The duck calls not only look the part, they sound it, too. "These calls are special because the kids handle everything, from the drill press, to the saw, to the lathe-they do it all. They like doing something that others will enjoy and it gives them hope and responsibility in a world that can be tough for special needs teens," Russell says. "I am the lucky one here; I get to come to work every day and see the joy these kids experience while making these calls. That is something I will never forget."