John Annoni; family man, outdoorsman, educator, philanthropist. What more can be said for a man that has done so much, for so many? John is just one of those people that, when speaking with him, will change your life in some way. He is a man of humble beginnings that has set out to impact children in a way that opens doors they may not otherwise have available.
John was raised by his grandmother, but would spend weekends at his mother’s. Home life there was not exactly nurturing, so to keep himself away from it all, he sought solace in nature. As a boy, John found comfort in the trees, chasing animals and just forgetting about life for a while. It was something he enjoyed so much that he started going to outdoor summer camps, absorbing as much of the knowledge nature had to offer. He learned to shoot, thanks to summer camp, yet yearned for more. He didn’t have any close family to teach him about hunting or the outdoors, so he tried to learn from anyone he could. Needless to say, John was hooked.
Fast forward to 1994, John is teaching fourth grade for the Allentown, PA School District. One day, his students were completing worksheets, and something just clicked for him. He just couldn’t sit there and be complacent in these children’s lives. Asking himself what influenced him in his own life at a young age, it became obvious what he needed to do. The outdoors is what resurrected John’s soul as a child, allowing him to beat the odds. It was in that moment that Camp Compass Academy was born. John made the commitment then and there to impact these kids in that same way, while also preserving outdoor heritage and traditions. But, it wasn’t going to be easy, they were all expected to put in work.
After some planning, John was able to put a week-long after school program together for his first group of students. Since this was an idea with minimal means, he reached out to the local community, taking advantage of what was already available, all while running the whole operation from his 2-door Ford Explorer. The entire program was rooted in the love of giving the kids something they couldn’t normally do, and allowing them to grow in ways they never thought possible. The level of trust and love a parent has to possess to initially send their child out with him was something that John never took for granted, and continues to strive toward. It required a huge responsibility, and resulted in a growing reputation for success.
John was able to develop a system that can be applied in other areas of the children’s lives as well. It involves an approach he calls ‘The Five E’s,’ which allows for total immersion, as well as sustainability, in an outdoor life. This system is taught to all of the mentors within Camp Compass Academy, and is also included in John’s second book, ‘Beyond One Day,’ that allows people from all walks of life to adopt his philosophy.
The first E, Exposure, basically teaches the child that an idea exists. It gets them aware, and usually interested in pursuing more. The second, Exploration, allows them to have a taste of the outdoors, for example, a large group fishing event. Next, Elongation, is where a true bond and love for the outdoors is developed. John has his students meet every Monday and work toward the goal of eventually going out to apply the skills they are learning. From day 1, the kids are introduced to firearm safety, using a laser simulator. After a full year, the child then will take hunter’s safety. Generally, the Elongation stage is a full two years of hard work, leading up to step 4, Effective Application. This is where the child gets to go out on excursions, putting their knowledge to the test. This is the point they have worked so hard to reach, so you can imagine how rewarding it is to finally achieve. Lastly, Example Mentoring, gives the kids an opportunity to stay involved with Camp Compass, even after completion. John’s system adopts an open door policy, allowing former CCA enrollees to return and mentor current students. In the 24 years that Camp Compass has been in operation, the longest any student has been in the program is 7 years, starting in sixth grade. To say John gets equally as invested in these kids as they do in him, would be an understatement.
I asked John if he could think of one specific child that had the most impact on him, and he easily said Zachi Telesha. Zachi was a brave little boy who was battling cancer. His passion and drive was so immense, that it pushed John to grind even harder. He completed as much of the program as possible, while undergoing treatments, it was his goal to go on a turkey hunt before he passed. Eventually, the illness was just too much for Zachi. As he was at home under hospice care, John made his dream a reality, setting it up for him to shoot a turkey decoy out of his own window with a nerf gun. Zachi was able to fulfill a goal not many can. John said to see the bravery that this young man fought with every day, it made him a stronger person as well. John and Zachi were even featured in a Cabela’s ad together.
Relationships like this can often fuel a need for change. One such relationship involved one of his students that was shot and killed. This spurred the movement John called ‘2 million bullets.’ But, it wasn’t until John began working with the ICBO POWER 30 research team in conjunction with Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. The 2MB program wasn’t getting the type of support that was initially envisioned, so it was reinvented with the help of the work done by the Cornell led team. The latest program out of Camp Compass is Hunting Awareness. It is now designed to bring a sense of unity to the sport, as well as awareness. It promotes open dialog using one simple tool, an orange camouflage ribbon. These ribbons are designed to be noticed, among strangers, as well as fellow hunters. The idea is that one day, the stereotypes surrounding the sport no longer exist. There is a purity in his mission, and hope for a united future.
John has received several awards over the last 20 years, for all of the work he has done in the outdoor community, as well as being an educator. When asking him what he considers to be his most significant award, John said it had to be the Outdoor Life 25. This was so special to him because it was one that people were able to vote on. The award was given to the top 25 most influential people in the country, and John placed 2nd in the ranking. It was quite humbling, as well as heartwarming for John to see how many lives he has impacted.
Seeing such measurable success with Camp Compass Academy and Hunting Awareness, what could possibly be next for John Annoni? The answer is bittersweet. After doing this for 24 years, John feels it is time to step away from CCA and into other communities, to start helping them build their own programs based off of his philosophy. He will not expand the Camp Compass name to other communities though. John feels it is important for each community to have ownership of their own program. He will be creating Camp Compass Consulting, helping communities build, and may take on a few kids to mentor. But, the focus will be on building and empowering other communities to nurture an outdoor lifestyle.
All of this would not have been possible if it weren’t for John’s wife Annette, and son Landon. They are the most precious thing to him, and they have sacrificed often to support John in his dream. Annette, being a city girl, has given so much for him to be able to do this every day. She is not an outdoor person herself, but does go out on trips as a mentor for the children still. He considers himself truly blessed to be where he is, doing what he loves, surrounded by so much support.
In closing, I asked John what advice he would give to someone that is interested in starting a foundation similar to Camp Compass. His best answer was that it will be a marathon of sacrifices, not a sprint. Your reward will not be monetary, but it WILL be worth it. Just keep your head down, and stick with it.