What began as a game farming venture over 20 years ago has since turned into a full-scale human service effort, otherwise known as Little Lakes Memories Inc.
“It all started with our deer farm back in the ‘90s,” explains LLM owner and board president Dick Busha. “Then in 2003 we decided to organize a hunting preserve and get into the business of hosting paid deer hunts. We did okay with our deer farm and had always played around with the idea of paid hunts so we decided to give it a go. It wasn’t long and we had people coming from all over, from as far away as Tennessee and even Texas. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in it, in fact I don’t know if we ever even broke even. But folks enjoyed it so we kept doing them.”
The Busha’s endeavor soon caught the attention of various non-profit organizations specializing in assisting people with disabilities and in 2005, Dick and his wife Bev began considering the idea of sponsoring hunting expeditions for those with disabilities.
“We liked the idea of helping folks and having an opportunity to give back a little,” Dick adds. “Just like our hunting preserve, soon we had folks coming in from around the country. In 2007 we came into contact with a gentleman and Merrill native by the name of Joe Ramsey. Joe owned and operated a non-profit organization called ‘Empowered Dream Hunts,’ which organizes and sponsors hunts for disabled folks, similar to the organizations we were already working with.”
Although the Busha’s were already quite familiar with organizations like Ramsey’s, they had the one thing which would complete Ramsey’s scope of service; land.
“Before we met, Joe was outsourcing for land and areas to hunt since he didn’t have any of his own,” Dick continues. “We started doing 2-3 hunts with him per year for a few years as well as continuing to offer paid hunts. During our time working with Joe, we met some great people! Along with striving to help others we emphasized a sense of family. Even back when we were doing only paid hunts, we always welcomed not only hunters but their members as well.”
“I think one thing that struck me right away was how amazing of a feeling it is to see someone bagging a deer, who may not have otherwise ever been able to do so,” Bev adds. “It’s a joy for us and for our guests to see them bag one, but it’s so much better when their families are there to share that joy with us!”
Three years ago, the Busha’s gave up offering paid hunts altogether and shifted their focus to assisting the physically disabled and impaired.
“We enjoyed the years we spent having folks come up and stay with us for paid hunts, but we just found more fulfillment in helping those less fortunate,” Bev explains. “Folks who come stay with us and take part in our hunts are very deserving people. It’s very rewarding for us to help them make memories to last a lifetime during their time with us.”
“We considered networking with other organizations,” Dick adds. “But we decided to start off on our own for a variety of reasons. It just seemed like a better fit for us.”
The couple set about applying for a non-profit 501 (c) (3) license and obtained their credentials in 2014. It was then, Little Lakes Memories Inc. of Irma, was born. The organization has now become a federally recognized non-profit with a seven-member board of directors and operated by Dick and Bev Busha as well as daughter Missy Wegner and her husband Erik and son Mark Busha and daughter-in-law Lisa.
In their first year alone the couple conducted five hunting expeditions and topped last year off with seven.
“Our eventual goal is 8-10, but I would estimate we have served over 50 since we first started these types of hunts 10 years ago,” Dick adds.
The process to begin the journey to LLM is relatively simple as the Busha’s explain.
The very first step is to visit the organization’s website at www.littlelakesmemories.org and complete the online application. The board then evaluates each and every application and makes a decision on which applications will be made priority based on variety of factors. Once an application is approved, the applicant will be contacted within a few weeks and the process of organizing a date and times for arrival will commence.
Upon approval, hunters are invited to the 105-acre preserve along with their family members and are welcome to stage at the tri-level, 2,400 sq ft. LLM lodge until a deer is harvested, however the Busha’s would like to emphasize there are no guarantees of a deer harvest.
The LLM lodge comes complete with cooking facilities, bathroom facilities, three bedrooms, a sleeping loft as well as a common area and DirectTV™ television access.
Hunters will be provided a guide for their hunt as well and upon a successful deer harvest, hunters will be given a free head mount, paid for by LLM and completed by Tom Hunter and Headhunter Taxidermy of Merrill. In addition, LLM will provide video and photographs of all guest stays and hunting expeditions.
“Our hope is for families to have a wonderful time, enjoy themselves and then return home with lifetime memories from their time with us,” Bev adds.
And the Busha’s services don’t stop there.
“We recently expanded to offering rest and respite services for families who need a little break from life or just a few days to regroup,” Dick said with a smile.
One example of the Bushas reaching out to families in need was just last summer.
“We had a family come to stay with us who had lost two children within the previous year, one due to an auto accident and another to illness,” he explains with a sigh as his smile fades. “To make matters worse, they weren’t exactly financially stable. They were from the Fox Valley area and were referred to us by a social services agency in that area, who had heard about us from an area sports club. They had been through a lot, were having a pretty tough time and just needed time away to regroup as a family.”
Upon contact with the referring agency, Busha immediately set about contacting the family and making arrangements for their visit.
“When they arrived, I met them and showed them around the lodge. It wasn’t long and it became apparent the family wasn’t exactly accustomed to country living… at all,” he adds with a little smile.
“After meeting them and showing them the lodge (located in a very remote area of the LLM reserve), I told them I would be back in a bit to allow them time to get comfortable and settle in. When I came back about an hour later, they had every door locked!” Dick explained with a chuckle.
“So I knock on the door and they didn’t want to open up at first. So I had to walk over and wave at them through the window to show them who I was and it was safe to open up. It took about a day for them to get comfortable to warm up to us and come outside for activities. That first day they had no interest in bonfires, or tours or anything. As it turned out, their main concern was for cougars, wolves, bears and so on. I assured them they had nothing to worry about and explained the eight-foot fence around the entire reserve.”
When the time had come for the family to depart, both Bev and Dick admit being amazed at the difference not only in how the family interacted with each other, but their overall adjustment to their unfamiliar environment.
“The kids warmed up first and eventually the adults came around. Within a few days they were coming along with us on the UTV to feed the deer, tour the reserve, having bonfires and so on,” Bev adds. “It was an amazing difference when they left compared to how they were when they first arrived here. It was a special healing time for them, they had a lot of hurt and pain which needing healing.”
The Busha’s served six families last summer alone and hope to top that number this summer, however as Dick adds, although their services are free of charge to guests, there are still expenses for LLM.
“We operate on a 100% volunteer and donation basis. Whatever donation may not cover, Bev and I cover ourselves. It’s worth it to us.”
“Hunts for our Heroes,” a banquet fundraising event for Little Lakes Memories, will be held Saturday, April 9, at Les & Jim’s Lincoln Lanes in Merrill. Proceeds will support a hunting excursion for a deserving local veteran. Tickets are $35 and available by calling 715-536-9377. Doors open at 4 p.m. with dinner at 6 p.m.
The event will feature an appearance by Miss Wisconsin Rosalie Smith. Door prizes, raffles and games will be available at the banquet.
The Busha’s welcome donations of any kind, those interested in donating, volunteering or for more information can visit LLM’s website or contact the Busha’s directly at 715-536-9377.