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Conner of West Texas

Conner of West, Texas
Conner at KOZ Hunting Camp 2013

The rumble of the ground was felt for hundreds of miles and registered a 2.1 on the Richter scale. Businesses, public spaces and homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Lives were shattered, dreams dissipated, hearts broken as time moved fast and stood still both. The explosion at the local fertilizer plant on April 17 in West, Texas was huge in so many ways.

The locals felt the pain immediately. The number of people who died in the explosion in West, Texas, stands at 15 with more than 200 injured. But these numbers are only statistics. They count a grave marker or a hospital file. They can never really calculate or express the depth of the true pain and anguish that will continue on, for years, generations, from the losses that April afternoon.

Little Conner Pratka was riding his bike, running errands for his mom when he saw the fire. “I rushed home and rode my bike into the garage,” he explained in a monotone voice as we sat around the campfire. “I pushed my bike with my foot into the garage when I jumped off and ran into the house. Luckey was right there and when I told him about the fire he had his fork right in front of his mouth, then he just dropped it and ran outside.”

Captain Kenneth “Luckey” Harris Jr., age 52, of West, was killed that day while providing the ultimate sacrifice to the community. A 30-plus-year veteran of the Dallas Fire Department and homeowner in the small town of West, Luckey was no stranger to the dangers of firefighting. He knew this was no ordinary fire, that the possibility of an explosion was there –– he probably knew it was going to happen –– but he rushed in anyway. His valor, his training, his passionate care for those he saved that day are clear. That is just one part of who Luckey Harris was.

“When the explosion happened, I got cuts on me. My parents wrapped me in a blanket and took me out of there. I didn’t know right away that Luckey wasn’t coming back.” A tremble in his voice is obvious as the fire shadows reflect off his face. The night is quiet, the other boys are quiet and then one by one they share their hearts’ pain. Growing up fatherless, abandonment, confusion and tenderness from just being a boy in a hard world. The teen leaders share how God’s strength and love brought them through hardships, bad decisions and hurt. The conversations ended with Romans 10:9, (If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved), and how we are given a chance to do life differently because of that gift.

It was a long, hot Texas summer day but the cool night air and the time with the boys removed the current fatigue and heat stress. God’s presence was clear. The boys shuffled back to the cabin late that night. The sky dark with a blanket of stars covering as far as you could see. I sat alone praying for each of them, praying for Luckey’s family.

Every day during the week we were up by sunrise and out hunting. This was hunting camp after all, and each of the boys harvested rabbit and ram. They cleaned, prepared and cooked them at each meal each night. Rabbit stew, baked ram-strap, fried ram. They learned about ranch work, trapping, hunting and wildlife management. They also took their hunter’s safety course and test during the week.  All outside, all in the Texas summer heat and all did well.

Conner had a specific dark Hawaiian ram on his mind, and it took days to finally get the shot he had been praying for. He shared the knowledge his dad and Luckey had taught him as he was growing up and spending time with them in adventure. The proper shot placement, safety, good hunting ethics. The only thing he lacked was the chance to prove he could do it. He got his shot and he did everything flawlessly.

The last day of the camp, Saturday, morning as the sun came over the tree line the boys made their way to the shallow concrete water hole, “the deer pond.” Five of them had prayed for Christ to lead them in their lives and asked to be baptized ­­­–– Conner was one of them.

Conner and all the boys left camp knowing something different about themselves. They know now they can “do hard things.” They know there is a God, a heavenly Father who loves them in ways they may have never known before. They have endured, carried on, pushed ahead, learned real things about themselves and the outdoors.

In life we have defining moments that make us who we are. They can take us out, rough us up, knock us around or open our hearts. Luckey was a giant in Conner’s life, and he is always going to be. With all that was struck against this dark-haired boy in the months previous, he chose to rise above it, to be strong and take a stand for who he will be, what he will stand for. Luckey would be proud of the shot he made and the decision to begin a walk with Christ. The ultimate decision, like Luckey.

The Kids Outdoor Zone program, KOZ, plans outdoor adventures every month for kids who need to “walk uneven ground.” First started for fatherless boys, the program now sees them come from every demographic and area of life. The program is supported by generous donors who understand the need for kids to explore the outdoors and be mentored by caring adults.

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