SIOUX CITY -- Braxton Miller likes knives. He also likes volunteering to help people.
When asked to flesh out deer hides for the benefit of disabled veterans, he didn't hesitate, though he'd never done anything like it before.
"I had a little clue what it was going to be like," said Braxton, an 11-year-old fifth-grader who lives in Sioux City. "It was fun, and I get to learn new things."
Siouxland deer hunters may be interested to learn of a program in which the hides from their trophy bucks can be turned into leather for craft kits and wheelchair gloves for veterans.
Sioux City Elks Lodge No. 112 is one of many that collect the hides each year during deer season from September through February for the Veterans Leather Program, a nationwide Elks program that donates the gloves and kits to the Veterans Administration, which gives the items to veterans.
"I'm very proud we're helping veterans. It's a way of giving back," said Scott Haberer, chairman of the Sioux City lodge's deer hides committee. "It's a nice service locally. It's a meaningful way to contribute."
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It's pretty easy, too. All hunters have to do is drop the hides into the big barrels behind the Elks Lodge, 1001 Tri View Ave., at any time. No calls to set up an appointment are necessary. Haberer and a team of half a dozen volunteers take care of the rest.
"It's a no-brainer," Haberer said. "Do this, or just throw the hides away. People are happy to drive them by."
On Saturday, Haberer and Braxton trimmed the fat and leftover meat from the hides behind the lodge before Haberer salted them down to cure and preserve them for storage until they're taken to a collection point early next year for transport to a tannery.
"He was very interested in it right away," Angie Miller said of her son getting involved with the volunteer work. "They take it pretty serious."
A friend of Braxton's grandmother, Haberer, who had done some work at Angie Miller's house, saw Braxton's interest in knives. Haberer bought Braxton a nice knife and told him he could pay it off by helping him flesh out the deer hides. Braxton went to the lodge to help with the hides for the first time a couple weeks ago.
"When (Haberer) first pulled it out, Braxton's face was like 'I don't know.' He jumped right in and did it cautiously and ever so carefully," his mother said.
Braxton said he likes learning how to safely use the extremely sharp knives.
"I like to help people, too," he said.
The deer hide program helps a lot of veterans every year. In 2019-20, lodges in 12 states collected 17,234 hides, which were turned into wheelchair gloves for 3,075 veterans and 10,620 craft kits. Last season, the Sioux City lodge turned in 177 hides, and Haberer said he lost 34 more that weren't cured in time. He estimates that each hide can produce two pairs of wheelchair gloves that come in handy for veterans during daily use or for athletic wheelchair competitions. Craft kits also are good therapy for veterans learning new skills.
"This is specifically what our program's designed to help," said Haberer, a hunter who also served a total of 42 years in the U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and Reserves.
Hide collection is off to a slow start this season. Haberer said 10 have been dropped off so far, compared to 50 at this time a year ago. He hopes the many area hunters who have supported the program in the past will drop off their hides encourage others to do so.
"It's kind of a feeling of patriotism -- they like the feeling of doing this," Haberer said. "It's all about improving our community."
And improving the lives of veterans, a cause that Elks volunteers young and old have embraced one hide at a time.