John Annoni isn’t your stereotypical bowhunter.
Annoni grew up on the tough, inner-city streets of Allentown, Pa. His father was a heroin addict who died of an overdose. His mother lived in the projects and was involved in abusive relationships.
Under the circumstances, the odds of Annoni becoming a productive member of society were slim. The odds of him becoming a hunter were just about none.
But as he’s proven time and time again, Annoni has a knack for beating long odds.
Thanks to the love and support of his grandparents, Annoni earned an education degree from Kutztown University and returned home as a middle school teacher in the Allentown School District.
And thanks to his overwhelming passion for the outdoors — not to mention lots of helping hands along the way — Annoni didn’t just become a hunter; he became an icon within the hunting community.
As a child, Annoni found great solace in nature, which offered an escape from the constant turmoil of family life. Whether fishing for Lehigh River smallmouths or being awed by a wayward pheasant in the neighborhood junkyard, Annoni discovered a sense of peace and belonging that simply didn’t exist at home. At age 11, in a small woodlot adjacent to the housing project where his mother lived, Annoni became a hunter when a gray squirrel fell to his recurve bow.
“Till this day, I can still picture the flight of that perfect arrow,” Annoni recalls. “It was as if the whole world stopped moving, except for that 20-inch piece of wood.
“That one squirrel, that pest of a creature, the bird-feeder raider, the power-outage-causer, helped me experience life in a way I never could have imagined. It opened gates of sensitivity I never had known or shown before. It brought out of me the instinctive predator impulse that would stay with me and change my life forever.”
Years later, Annoni realized sharing his love of the outdoors could help save students falling through the system’s cracks. In 1994, he founded Camp Compass Academy, a mentoring program that uses hunting as an integral part of pointing at-risk youth toward academic and social success.
Camp Compass has exposed thousands of inner-city children to the outdoors and had an intensely personal impact on hundreds of academy “graduates” who have completed the intensive, multi-year program. Annoni’s personal story, along with his biracial heritage, gives him all the “street cred” needed to reach youths experiencing similar challenges.
In 2007, I had the privilege of accompanying Camp Compass student Alexandra Salazar on a Pennsylvania turkey hunt during which she took her very first gobbler. Salazar, then a 15-year-old high school sophomore, was a self-described “video game junkie” who counted rapper Ludacris among her favorite musical artists. But she was also passionate about hunting, and despite several blown chances that day, hunted hard and took a bird just five minutes before quitting time.
“I like it more and more every time I go hunting, because I learn something new every time,” Salazar told me. “They don’t teach you this stuff in school.”
Salazar graduated from high school this spring and recently started college in California.
That’s the beauty of Camp Compass, which has earned Annoni countless accolades from the outdoor community, including 1999 Safari Club International Educator of the Year, 2005 Pope and Young Club Stewardship Award and 2008 OL25, Outdoor Life magazine’s annual list of 25 people who have had the greatest positive impact on hunting or fishing.
BOWHUNTING’s annual whitetail issue seemed like the perfect time to share Annoni’s inspiring story.
Like all deer hunters, I write this column with eager anticipation of deer season and the big bucks I hope to see in my sight window. Yet at the same time, as I reflect upon Annoni’s example, there’s no denying the fact that life’s most important trophies don’t hang on the wall.
“It takes a lot of work to get one kid out of the city to be able to do what we do, but if somebody has a passion to want to participate and give back, you find a way to make it work,” Annoni said. “I think that’s where Camp Compass is going — showing people creative ways to keep our sport alive.”