By BOB GROSS | Times Herald (Port Huron)
PORT HURON, Mich. (AP) — Mike Gates can recall, achingly, painfully, the day he lost his sight.
“Jan. 14, 1989—you never forget,” he told the Times Herald. “When you've been shot in the face with a double barrel 12 gauge, you don't forget it.”
Gates, a 57-year-old Port Huron native, was shot while hunting rabbits 26 years ago. He now has a camp for blind and disabled people in eastern Kentucky called Christ's Outreach for the Blind.
“From where I was to where I am today is pretty unbelievable,” he said.
His journey is not just the story of a physical move from the flat farmlands of Michigan's Thumb to the foothills of eastern Kentucky, but of a spiritual awakening.
Gates was angry after the accident, not at the friend he was hunting with and not with the defective gun that fired when it wasn't supposed to, but with God for letting it happen.
“First of all, it was because I was a Christian when I got shot,” Gates said. “Nothing happened without God's OK, so he OK'd this.”
“I was pretty mad about it.”
Understand where he was coming from: Gates was an avid outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing.
“That's all I ever was,” he said. “I worked for my dad, and all my spare time I was either hunting or fishing.”
When he lost his sight, he can't see anything, not even to distinguish between dark and light, he lost just about everything. Hunters aim at targets, they use sights and scopes, they earn nicknames like “Hawkeye.” If you can't see, you can't hunt.
Or so Gates thought, until he remembered a deer he had taken before the accident.
“The year before the accident, I had a deer come into my bait pile and I was sitting there looking at it and I had one of these little scopes on my bow,” Gates said.
He couldn't see the deer through the scope, not enough light, but he could see the pile of carrots on which the animal was feeding.
“I aimed at the carrot pile,” he said. “I moved the bow over about 18 inches and lifted the bow up about 18 inches and I ended up getting that deer.
“The whole time I was in the hospital, I couldn't get that deer out of my mind. I got that deer and I couldn't see it. I couldn't stop thinking about it.”
He came to believe that if he could get a deer to come to an exact spot in the woods, and if he could group his arrows in that spot, he'd still be able to hunt.
“The first year I went hunting, I ended up sitting in a tree with the guy who shot me,” he said. “Six deer came in. I got two shots, and I got them both.”
The next year he was in a tree stand alone and shot two more deer.
“Even though I was still mad at God, I was doing a lot of praying, and I was thanking God I could still do this,” he said.
That's when he had his Paul on the road to Damascus moment.
“I was sitting there praying about it,” he said. “I knew I had two deer down, and it was the first time I heard God speak. The first time in 33 years I heard God speak. I knew I could teach other kids to do this.
“That's how this whole camp got started.”
The camp is on 900 acres near Interstate 75 close to Mount Vernon, Kentuck, where the highway begins its long climb up from Berea. A brochure says it serves 600 blind or disabled children annually.
“What we do is I bring kids in here who are blind and physically challenged, and I show them life is not over,” he said. “You have to start life over.”
He started buying property in 1995, and he and his wife, Lori, moved there in 2001. Activities include aquatics, horseback riding, hiking, fishing and boating, and hunting.
“If they can get here, I can get them on the deer or turkeys, or we have lakes with fish in them,” Gates said. “We have a whole array of activities.
“You have to get them interested in life again before you can get them interested in rehab.”
Gates said his story serves as an example for the kids and people who attend the camp.
“I had a kid come in from Louisiana, 12 years old, his name is Isaiah and he has retinitis pigmentosa , he is going blind, but he's not there yet,” Gates said. “I ended up shooting a nice eight point on opening day and I was so bummed because I was sitting there thinking, ‘Why not Isaiah?’
“Later that night, his grandpa came up to me and said you have no idea how important it was for Isaiah for you to get that deer today.”
The man said his grandson told him, “Do you realize the only guy who got a deer today can't see anything? I'm going to be able to still do this.”
Gates said the camp is free and will be that way as long as he has anything to say about it. People can help by making donations or by making a mission trip to work at the camp.
“We charge $215 a person to work here,” he said. “We provide meals, lodging and all the tools they need to do their work.
“That gives us about $60 a kid we can spend on these kids in the wheelchairs and who are blind.”
Gates said that face-shattering shotgun blast 26 years ago changed his life _ and he's thankful.
“When I first went blind, I thought my life was over,” he said. “I didn't realize it was just starting. Sixty-nine people have gotten saved since we got here.
“Nobody listened to me when I could see.”
Information from: Times Herald, http://www.thetimesherald.com