By Chris Holmes
Back in my high school days, if I wanted to participate in a school-sanctioned group, my choices were Key Club, Glee Club, or the Foreign Language Club. However, being interested in the outdoors, I found none of these very appealing. In 2005, Ducks Unlimited Varsity was introduced in high schools to offer students a way to merge school pride, leadership development, and a love for the outdoors and conservation.
With nearly two dozen DU Varsity chapters already established across the country, 17-year-old Connor Gisclair was curious when he saw an ad about the program in Ducks Unlimited magazine. He and several of his friends from South Lafourche High School in Cut Off, Louisiana, are passionate about waterfowl hunting and Louisiana's marshes. So he made a call.
With no other Varsity chapters in Louisiana, South Lafourche High School had the opportunity to be the first. It takes but a single spark to start a fire, and Gisclair was that spark. "From the time I started speaking with him on the phone, I knew this was going to be a special chapter," said Mark Horobetz, DU Manager of Youth & Education Programs.
Connor was familiar with the "adult" DU Chapter in his area, as he and his father were members and attended their annual fundraiser. However, this would be different. The Varsity chapters are organized and managed by the students. They take on all the responsibility with some limited guidance and advice from their parents and a DU regional director. As fate would have it, the Varsity chapter got rolling in early summer 2014, just ahead of the DU Louisiana State convention.
A few generous DU volunteers paid the way for Connor, two fellow committee members, and their parents to attend the state convention. This welcomed them to the DU family, gave insight into DU's wetlands conservation mission, and provided information of DU's event fundraising system.
"Once they experienced the convention, that really sealed the deal for the parents," said Zac Brown, DU regional director. The students and their parents left the convention with many new friends and a desire to get the South Lafourche High School Varsity Chapter on a fast track. With only a few months before banquet season, the group had a lot of work to do in a short time.
They built their committee and began putting the pieces together, secured their venue, obtained donations, and promoted the event.
Louisiana resident Ron Bartels, who is a national DU board member and long-time DU supporter, attended the early December 2014 banquet. "When I walked in, you could feel the enthusiasm in the group. What really struck me were the old faces of people that have been absent from DU events for quite a while."
The banquet was a huge success. The students sold 17 tables and had 250 attendees at their event in tiny Cut Off, Louisiana. The Varsity chapters are not only succeeding in getting the younger generation involved and invested in conservation, they are reinvigorating the parents and grandparents whom may have slipped away. "While there was some overlap of attendance with the high school chapter and the local adult chapter, I definitely saw a lot of different folks at this event," Bartels added.
Gisclair is humble, but proud of the accomplishment their Varsity chapter achieved in only a few short months. When the numbers were totaled, their inaugural banquet netted an impressive $34,564.00 for DU conservation mission.
They tied for first place with the Midway High School Varsity chapter (North Carolina) who was hosting their third annual banquet.
Gisclair's time in the DU Varsity program was limited, but successful. He's a senior and plans to attend Louisiana's Nicholls State University. Nicholls does not have a DU University chapter, and Gisclair hopes his class schedule allows him to work with other students to get one started there. Of course, he plans to stay in touch with the South Lafourche High School Varsity Chapter and lend a hand when possible.
The Varsity chapters are focused on instilling the knowledge and responsibility for students to fully run their own chapter and carry on the DU mission. Just as the Prairie Pothole Region is necessary for the sustainability of duck populations, the Varsity chapters are the breeding grounds for future DU volunteers and leaders. There is no doubt that this is being accomplished.
"Their work ethic, passion, and love for waterfowl and the marshes in which they hunt is why they were ultimately so successful. I was also extremely impressed with how Connor handled himself the night of the event. He acted as if he had been hosting DU events for years," said Horobetz.
Gisclair summed up his brief, but highly rewarding time in the DU Varsity program, "I would tell other students that they may not realize it, but by joining DU Varsity, they help raise money to not only save the ducks, but also protect the beautiful wetlands and pothole regions that DU is conserving and restoring. My high school chapter has shown me all the great people involved with DU and that we can become lifelong friends while saving something that we love. As we say, 'Do it for the Ducks.'"