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Photos courtesy of Justin Kane.
Veterans pose with the results of their hunts at Iron Horse Charities. In the future, Kane said, he hopes to build a lodge for larger groups and families and house a center for counseling services and a gymnasium with an aquatics area for physical rehabilitation.
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Photos courtesy of Justin Kane.
Veterans pose with the results of their hunts at Iron Horse Charities.
Hunting retreat aims to offer wounded veterans a reprieve from suffering.
Deep in the lush forest of central Alabama, you can find Hoover resident Justin Kane leading a group of veterans and volunteers on a hunting excursion. The camping site on Iron Horse Farms — complete with wheelchair access — serves as a sanctuary of healing for veterans.
Four years ago, the Kane family started a foundation called St. Michael’s Iron Horse Charities, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, based in Marion. Their mission is to bring wounded and suffering veterans — both physically and mentally — to their farm on hunting retreats for a chance to heal through fellowship, counseling, communication and relaxation.
Iron Horse Charities hosts two-day retreats for eight to 10 veterans at no cost. The retreats include room and board, daily home-cooked meals, training and assistance as well as hunting equipment for exploring more than 2,000 acres of wildlife-filled woods. There are also counselors and guides available to help those who may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder during the trip.
The foundation follows Christian principles and is named after archangel St. Michael “to assist God’s plan to work with and comfort the wounded of body and mind of our U.S. Armed Forces,” according to its website. “We are also dedicated to feed, clothe and spiritually nurture those in dire need of these things within the central Alabama area, which is mired in severe poverty.”
St. Michael, one of the seven principal archangels, is regarded as the leader of God’s army of angels in heaven.
“It’s a shame the way veterans returning home are treated,” said Kane, founder of Iron Horse Charities. “Men and women come back from duty with PTSD, and they might go to the VA for assistance, but many have nowhere to go — no home or places to connect with other veterans. During one of our retreats, we’ll have 12 strangers get together on a Friday and become best friends by Sunday.”
Joe Evans, who Kane refers to as the “master chef” of the foundation, attends the retreats to grill meats and cook meals around a fire for everyone.
“The volunteers and I come down [to the retreats] and really get an appreciation for the veterans’ stories, hearing them talk about places I’ve only heard about on the news,” he said. “If we can help them out by giving them a little solace over the weekend, I’m happy. We might not even see a deer or turkey, but participants really enjoy sitting in the woods for a few hours.”
There is also a small butterfly garden with swings and a picnic table pavilion where veterans can relax.
Word travels fast, and since its inception, Iron Horse Charities has grown tremendously.
“Our retreats were so popular during deer season last year that we had to lease an extra 1,200 acres in addition to our land, which can already accommodate 15 to 20 hunters at a time,” Kane said.
Kane works with the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization dedicated to supporting injured veterans and their families, to find people who are interested in participating in the retreats.
After acquiring the land, Kane discovered another benefit: The soil was incredibly fertile.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” he said. “I’m not a farmer by trade, but we grew about 50,000 pounds of produce last summer.”
The foundation donated surplus fruits and vegetables to Edmundite Missions in Selma. That group serves a thousand meals a day to disenfranchised groups as well as elderly individuals who have trouble leaving their homes. The mission also has started a program to feed underprivileged kids during weekends and holidays, with a large portion of its resources credited to Iron Horse Farms.
Iron Horse Charities also donates to charities in Birmingham such as Jimmie Hale and Brother Bryan, homeless shelters that help many veterans during tough times. Many of these organizations are often limited to only serving canned food, so the fresh produce donations are welcome. The nutritional value that comes with the fruits and vegetables is a bonus.
“I’ll pull up there on a Saturday afternoon with a pickup filled with tomatoes, eggplants, melons, corn … there’s no better feeling,” Kane said. “We believe everybody should have access to fresh, affordable food that promotes our natural energy to live a more fulfilling and sustained life.”
The Kane family owns and locally operates the foundation, which originated as a trust and was converted to a charity that can accept donations. When the number of veterans wanting to come to their outings started to outpace their resources, the Kane family began using revenue from Iron Horse Farms and Kane Steel & Iron.
The foundation is supported through donations and fundraisers, as well as through Iron Horse Farms and Kane Steel & Iron, two organizations that sell farm goods and products to help assist community outreach projects. All donations assist the foundation in its mission to help veterans heal and assimilate back into society, Kane said.
Kane Steel & Iron supplies goods such as tubing, steel plates, handrails and pipes. They also offer manufacturing services for cattle guards, shooting houses, garden trellises and pergolas. Iron Horse Farms offers wholesale fresh vegetables, pine straw bales and firewood, focusing on complete customer satisfaction. Their produce is available at many local farmers markets, and Kane said he hopes to have their products in restaurants and supermarkets soon.
Additionally, Iron Horse Farms will soon offer vegetable baskets that will be delivered weekly to residents of central Alabama who sign up for their summer growth program.
In the future, Kane said, he hopes to build a lodge for larger groups and families and house a center for counseling services and a gymnasium with an aquatics area for physical rehabilitation. As for now, he said he is focused on growing the Kane manufacturing and fabrication business, along with pine straw sales.
“We also want to install a chicken coop in to add eggs to our donations,” Kane added. “We’d also like to build a playground for children visiting.”
“It’s because of these people we have freedom in this country and can sleep safely at night. Our country is so fortunate due to the sacrifices made by those protecting it. There’s something really special about the individuals we help,” he said.