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Park Rapids nonprofit guides vets to the great outdoors

Mandatory Fun Outdoors was founded around 2018 by retired Park Rapids DNR conservation officer Sam Carlson.

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Sam Carlson, founder of Mandatory Fun Outdoors, has duck hunted with former Vikings head coach Bud Grant. "He is great," she said of the WW II veteran. Her Park Rapids nonprofit organization aims to get servicemembers outdoors for recreation and healing.

Mandatory Fun Outdoors (MFO), a Park Rapids nonprofit organization designed to get veterans and their families outdoors, was recently awarded a $20,000 grant.

The grant from the Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans Trust Fund (V4V), another nonprofit organization, will support programs for local veterans to hunt, fish, garden, mushroom hunt, dog sled, ride horseback and more.

MFO was founded around 2018 by retired Park Rapids DNR conservation officer Sam Carlson.

V4V chair Dean Ascheman said MFO received the grant “because we liked the variety of her programs.”

Military connection

A Wadena High School graduate, Carlson grew up in a military family. All three of her brothers served – two of them during conflicts.

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“I was not in the military because of some health issues, and I wanted to be able to serve those who served,” she said.

She began her career in law enforcement. To unwind, she would head to the woods.

“Growing up in the outdoors – hunting, fishing, camping, boating, all that stuff – I realized how therapeutic the outdoors were,” Carlson said.

In 2004, she switched to the DNR, moving to Park Rapids in 2009. She retired in August 2020.

Founding MFO

“I have worked with a lot of nonprofit, veterans-based organizations over the last 15 years,” she said. “Hunting and fishing is my background, so I did a lot of those types of events with those other groups. … But there’s more outdoors than just hunting and fishing.”

So Carlson branched out on her own and founded MFO, with a focus on military servicemembers and combat veterans.

She still partners with many of the same veterans organizations.

Many veterans clubs have contributed to MFO as well, such as the Wadena VFW and Park Rapids American Legion. Carlson said she is appreciative of their support.

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One hundred percent of all donations to MFO go toward lodging, meals and supplies.

“We don’t have any overhead. I don’t pay anyone anything. I don’t pay myself anything,” Carlson said.

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When the Camp Ripley Disabled Veteran's Turkey Hunt was canceled in 2020, Carlson reassured Navy veteran Hank Ebert that she "would try getting him on a bird one way or another. After three days of close encounters but no shot, things finally fell into place on the fourth morning. This gobbler ran off another and then strolled in to fight with our jake decoy. Hank made a perfect 15-yard shot to seal the deal."

Healing and recreational

MFO works with servicemembers of all ages and from all conflicts.

Mobilizing volunteers is the easy part, she said. “I usually get more volunteers to help than I do veterans. People want to help.”

Vets from across Minnesota are welcome.

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Carlson finds she has a harder time getting younger veterans to participate, in particular, because they have a mindset that “someone else deserves it more.”

But that’s simply not true, she said.

MFO organizes group, individual and family-oriented outdoors events to encourage “fresh air, a little exercise and camaraderie.”

Counselors are available for those who wish to talk to one, but it is also helpful to talk to fellow vets while sitting around a campfire.

“I try to make it as healing as possible,” Carlson said. “We try to provide the outdoor, therapeutic side of it. We also pride ourselves on being an alternative to alcohol, drugs and suicides.”

Long-lasting friendships are formed as well. “They’re exchanging phone numbers,” she said. Six months later, she’ll learn that a vet is having Easter dinner with one of the guides. “It really is a great way for them to get out, but for them to learn how to go out.”

Fish, hunt and more

Carlson frequently asks veterans which activities they’d like to do via MFO’s Facebook page.

“We do everything and anything,” she said.

MFO has led pheasant, turkey, deer and bear hunts.

One time, someone suggested a dog sled trip.

“I said, ‘OK,’ so I lined up a couple mushers and a weekend where they stayed at Park Rapids. It was a family event,” Carlson recalled. After the dog sled ride, they all went ice fishing. “It was awesome. It was 30-below, but it was awesome. We had sleeping bags with hand warmers in there, and everybody had a great time.”

Last weekend, MFO hosted an all-female veterans’ event in Nisswa called “Gals and Gills.” More than two dozen female vets went fishing with 13 professional guides, who donated their time. This was MFO’s third annual event.

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Mandatory Fun Outdoors held a tribute to women veterans in honor of the the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Fishing guides took the vets to Mille Lacs Lake to experience smallmouth fishing.

Carlson took a Purple Heart recipient on a bear hunt with his two children. Recruiting some friends who are bear guides, she said, “It was a hunt of a lifetime for him.”

American Heroes Outdoors loaned a fish house for the camp. Her brother, an Afghanistan vet, shared his side-by-side ATV.

“He shot a bear. It wasn’t a huge bear, but it was his first one, and he was tickled pink. There were just smiles everywhere,” Carlson said.

Each July, MFO arranges a “Warriors and Walleyes” event on the Lake of the Woods.

“We had a Vietnam prisoner of war at that (2021) event. He was fascinating,” Carlson said, adding that he will be featured on an episode of American Heroes Outdoors TV.

Veterans are thankful for these opportunities, but Carlson and volunteers say “it’s our way to thank you guys.”

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Earlier this year, MFO arranged a dog-sled excursion in Park Rapids for veterans and their families.

She plans to use the $20,000 grant to create garden spaces for veterans. They would plant and harvest food for their families. She hopes to do a trial run in Park Rapids. She’s looking for a plot.

To learn more, visit www.mandatoryfunoutdoors.org or email mfo.information@gmail.com. Donations can be sent to MFO, P. O. Box 646, Park Rapids, MN 56470.

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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