Banker empowered by adventure

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Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 1:20 pm

A wooden plague sits on Karen Wheeler’s desk in her Extraco Bank office in Belton with the words “She believed she could, so she did.”

Wheeler points at it and smiles.

“It’s the motto for Women in the Outdoors, and I really believe it too,” she said.

Wheeler speaks with a gentle firmness in her voice that floats through the air. It is the voice of a truly empowered and happy woman. One of the things that makes her the happiest is participating in the annual Women in the Outdoors event.

For the past seven years, Wheeler, a senior relationship banker, and more than 100 women gather at the Hilliard Ranch near Davilla to experience outdoor activities, such as fly fishing, duck hunting and geocaching, just three of the more than 20 classes offered to women.

“Everyone knows I do Women in Outdoors. It’s the one thing that’s just for me,” she said.

Wheeler is no stranger to the great outdoors, and the day-long event is like a trip into her past.

Born in Brownwood and raised by her grandparents, Wheeler trailed after her “papa” outdoors on their 3-acre farm. Her childhood was idyllic growing up fishing, hiking and playing in his little shed where he kept his deer horns. Wheeler recalls his country-style pampering.

“When my cousin and I got stung by yellow jackets, Papa would take chewing tobacco from his mouth and put it on the sting,” Wheeler said. “He was my pride and joy, so that was my beginning.”

Mother Nature rewarded Wheeler with a life-long love of the outdoors that she shares with her own family. Married for 31 years to Wesley Wheeler, they have two adult children, two grandchildren and multiple grand-puppies. She understands the value that a healthy respect for the outdoors brings to the family unit. “It’s so important to get back to nature, so you can do more as a family,” she said.

Both of the Wheeler children grew up involved with Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and that’s where she met Monica Sobotka, who introduced her to the Women in the Outdoors event.

“When I heard about it, I said, I’ve got to do it,” Wheeler said.

Her first year was spent kayaking, archery and firing a pistol. Afterward, she told her husband that she wanted a kayak, bow and arrows and a pistol.

“I haven’t gotten them yet but I will,” she said with a laugh.

Kayaking is still her favorite activity that she repeats every year.

“No matter what happens, I’m getting in that kayak,” she said. “I love it because it’s serene and relaxing.”

Each woman can select four events, two in the morning followed by lunch and then two in the afternoon. It’s like an outdoor candy store for Wheeler.

“Welding is one of my top priorities, and kayaking, of course,” she said. Then she counts off the ones she’s already done: archery, ATV, beginning shotgun, cowboy cooking, duct tape handbag and handgun. The classes are rotated every year giving women plenty of new classes to try.

“It boosts my self-confidence so much because everyone cheers for you,” Wheeler said. “There’s no better investment you can make than in yourself.”

Monica Sobotka, Women in the Outdoors coordinator, said the event “lets Karen be Karen for that day, so she can identify who she is.” About 250 people, including participants, volunteers and instructors attend annually.

“This is a really big event and it keeps growing every year,” Sobotka said.

Through the years, Wheeler has transitioned from just being a participant to a planning committee member. She helps organize and collect prizes for “Queen for a Day” which started four years ago. A $5 donation gives a woman a chance to win the random drawing.

“The queen is pampered all day and gets to wear a tiara, a pink camouflaged sash and is driven around in a pink ATV,” said Wheeler, beaming broadly. Even though she hasn’t won it yet, she gets a lot of pleasure seeing someone else enjoy the pampering.

For the rest of the 364 days of the year, Wheeler works at Extraco helping customers with banking information and giving out free hugs. This August, she will celebrate her 25th anniversary at the bank.

Wheeler pauses and reflects for several long seconds on what she has learned by attending Women in the Outdoors. “I always learn something new to do and something new about myself,” she said. “It’s a personal growth experience unlike any other.”

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