Connor Haskins hid among the trees, ready to pounce. He had responded with Maine game warden Matthew Tenan to a report of a poached deer in Lubec.
Haskins discovered the deer upon their arrival and they were waiting to see whether the poacher would show up to recover the animal. Haskins spotted the vehicle as it approached. The driver stopped near the deer, got out and started putting it into the bed of the truck.
“I jumped up out of the woods and told him to put his hands up, and we put him in handcuffs,” Haskins said of the successful apprehension.
The stakeout was part of an elaborate scenario set up on Sept. 15 by Tenan, with the help of several other Down East game wardens. The exercise was designed specifically for 12-year-old Haskins, whose dream is to become a game warden.
“This was a way where I could really give him a good day, but with controlled situations,” Tenan said.
Haskins’ mother, Ashley Handzlik, had contacted Tenan and asked whether he might consider taking Connor for a ride-along in his truck. Handzlik explained that her son is dealing with a terminal illness called Pompe Disease.
With the condition, which affects one in 40,000 children, the body cannot make the protein that breaks down complex sugars for energy. It takes a toll on muscles and affects breathing and heart function, among other areas.
Haskins would have been thrilled to simply spend some time on patrol, but Tenan was moved by Haskins’ enthusiasm for becoming a warden. So he began crafting a plan that would ensure the youngster had a day to remember.
“Little did I know how exciting it was going to be for him,” Handzlik said. “Matt truly went above and beyond for this child.”
Haskins was diagnosed with Pompe Disease in October 2022 after a lifetime of health issues that included heart surgery at age 4 to treat Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a congenital heart ailment. Doctors finally discovered the issue after he collapsed on the basketball court last fall and was put through a battery of tests.
Now Haskins travels to Boston Children’s Hospital every two weeks to receive experimental enzyme replacement therapy. It is among the only treatments that can temporarily help lessen the effects of Pompe Disease on his body.
Tenan and Handzlik planned Haskins’ special day to come shortly after a treatment, when Haskins usually feels his best. It included bringing together several game wardens from Section A.
The group also included wardens Jason Scott, Alan Curtis and his trained dog, and Dave Simmons.
“When I told them I had this coming up, and I needed some help from everybody, everyone just said what can I do?” Tenan said. “Washington County really came together and it was awesome.”
Tenan provided Haskins with a uniform, including a bulletproof vest, a badge and an embroidered name patch, so that he would look the part when being officially recognized as a Junior Maine Game Warden. Tenan attended a student assembly at Lubec Consolidated School.
Handzlik had the honor of pinning Haskins’ badge on the uniform.
“That part of it for me is emotional, because I don’t know if we’ll ever get this day truly to come, for real, because of his disease and his limitations,” she said.
Suddenly, during the presentation, Tenan received a call.
“It said that there was a poached deer and we needed to go take care of it,” said Haskins, who hustled out of the school and got into the truck.
“He let me put the sirens and lights on,” he said with excitement.
The situation didn’t end when the “poacher” was caught. And Haskins didn’t realize the situation was a drill until he was asked to retrieve evidence from the subject’s truck — which he recognized as a warden service vehicle.
The wardens took Haskins through their procedures for collecting and photographing evidence, including gathering fingerprints and DNA, and how to write a court summons.
“That’s what we go through at warden school and that’s a real scenario that you have to pass,” Tenan said. “I explained to him that he did a great job and he passed the scenario and there’s no doubt in my mind that he could be a game warden.”
After the exercise was completed, Haskins and Handzlik were treated to lunch with the game wardens at Helen’s Restaurant in Machias. Haskins ended his day riding with Tenan in a side-by-side all terrain vehicle on the Sunrise Trail.
“He let me drive, too. It was way more than I thought he would do,” Haskins said of the day’s adventures.
The smile on Haskins’ face, and his curiosity and engagement when the wardens had him help, was all the thanks the men needed.
“It was good for everybody,” Tenan said. “Everyone in the whole section worked on it. It was a team effort.”
Tenan, who has three children of his own, said he would hope that if one of them faced a life-threatening illness, other people would be willing to make a similar gesture of kindness.
For Handzlik, the gesture by the game wardens and the experience they provided Haskins cannot be understated.
“The important thing to get across is, no matter how sick you are, go for your dreams, because I’m watching him live his,” she said.
Haskins previously had a positive interaction with the warden service when, at age 4, he and his sister became lost in the woods while following deer tracks behind their house. A game warden found them.
Haskins remembers that the warden allowed him to help drive the ATV on the way out.
Haskins developed his passion for becoming a game warden while watching the “North Woods Law” TV show with his grandfather. He said the job fits perfectly with the kinds of activities he enjoys.
“I’ve always been an outdoors kid. I’ve always loved animals,” Haskins said. “And as soon as I heard what a game warden was, I knew I wanted to do it.”
There is a GoFundMe page, “Support Connor’s Fight Against a Rare Disease,” set up to help with Haskins’ medical costs. In the meantime, as the family prays for a cure for Pompe Disease, Haskins continues chasing his dream of becoming a game warden.
“He’s like, mom, we’ve still got tomorrow, let’s do what we can,” Handzlik said. “I’m like, you’re right, buddy, we’re not going to give up. We’re going to do whatever we can to make life the best we can.”