Annoni’s desire to connect city kids with nature is the result of his own difficult childhood. An Allentown native, Annoni was raised by his maternal grandparents, Mary and Henry Angelo Annoni, who lived in a modest home at Second and Linden streets.
His father, Frank Thorpe, was a heroin addict. The last time Annoni saw him was about four years ago, when Thorpe overdosed and was found by police dead in a bathtub. Annoni says he was called to identify the body.
”I never had a dad,” Annoni said. ”I got to see him a couple times in jail and saw him once or twice on the street.”
Annoni’s parents were never married. However, his mother, Patricia Annoni, was involved in a series of abusive relationships that made for some traumatic weekend stays at her home in the Hanover Acres housing project, he says. During many of those visits, Annoni simply took off and headed for the sanctuary of nearby woodlots, where he discovered peace among the trees and wildlife.
”That got me away from the abuse,” Annoni said. ”It took me away from things that hurt me.”
Other than his grandparents and a few uncles who taught him about hunting and took him fishing along Jordan Creek, nature was one of the few positive influences in Annoni’s young life.
”I had a good, personal relationship with the outdoors,” he said.
Annoni’s first hunting experience occurred around age 8 or 9, when he shot a squirrel with a homemade bow. He learned to shoot rifles at Camp Horseshoe, a former Boy’s Club camp in Lehigh County where his grandmother sent him each summer.
By the time Annoni was in high school, he had developed a real passion for the outdoors. He said hunting and fishing provided an escape that many around him sought in drugs.
”It’s hard to do drugs when you want to get up in the morning and hunt animals,” Annoni said. ”How am I going to beat a white tail [if I’m high]? C’mon.”
After graduating from Dieruff High School in 1985, Annoni attended Kutztown University and received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1989. Living in Kutztown was Annoni’s first extended stay in a rural area, and he enjoyed the opportunity to do more hunting and exploring on the large Game Lands of Berks County.
Annoni killed his first deer while in college. Although he had been a hunter since age 12, Annoni said he was never frustrated by his lack of success. ”It wasn’t like I was just there for the deer,” he said. ”I was there because it was my [security] blanket.”
While Annoni’s college experience made it easier for him to hunt, it was a difficult time personally.
Annoni’s father was black, and his mother is white. He said his bi-racial heritage never seemed like a big deal on the multi-ethnic streets of Allentown, but he noticed a difference on the predominantly white Kutztown campus. In December of 1988, Annoni was cited for criminal mischief after he kicked in the door of a fellow student who referred to him using a racial epithet.
”You have to grow into yourself,” Annoni said. ”I had a lot of great friends who didn’t really care, but it really struck me when I got to college. That’s where it was the biggest issue, and that’s where it really came to fruition that hey, I’m a little different.”
Despite that turmoil, Annoni said the experience taught him to deal with the race issue – and how not to deal with it. These days, race is a topic he rarely brings up.
”It’s just an issue that I don’t really harp on much,” he said. ”I want people to look at me for me.”
After graduating from Kutztown, Annoni returned home and took a job as a fourth-grade teacher at Central Elementary. He’s been in the Allentown School District ever since.
Annoni’s first boss was David Borbe, a retired principal who worked 33 years in the Allentown public schools. Borbe said it was clear from the start that Annoni has a special gift.
”He was quite interested in motivating kids, not only in academic subjects, but also in behavior – doing the right thing, being kind, working hard and being cooperative with other students and teachers,” Borbe said. ”He was a very caring teacher, and it spilled over and effected all the students.”
Borbe also is a lifelong hunter, and it wasn’t long before he and Annoni were swapping stories and heading afield together. Borbe even invited Annoni to sleep over the night before deer season opened and introduced him to many productive hunting areas.
”He was sort of the son I never had,” Borbe said. ”I had a daughter, and I was hoping I would have a son to go hunting with, and he filled that void for me while we were working together.”
Back at school, Borbe encouraged Annoni to include the outdoors in his curriculum and allowed Annoni to bring in special guests such as taxidermists and wildlife biologists.
”When he started incorporating the outdoors into the classroom, he brought more relevancy to the subject areas,” Borbe said. ”It really got the kids excited.”
Eventually, Annoni developed outdoor programs for the entire school and started conducting summer enrichment programs at the Wildlands Conservancy’s Pool Wildlife Sanctuary, where he worked with kids from the Boy’s Club, the Sixth Street Shelter and elsewhere.
”The outdoors always welcomes you, and that’s what I think is so important to kids,” Annoni said. ”Those critters don’t see color, and they don’t know if you’re rich or poor.”
After several years, Annoni realized those programs were too limited. First, they didn’t provide enough long-term, one-on-one contact to make a life-changing impact on the students. Secondly, Annoni knew he would never be able to take kids hunting or introduce them to the shooting sports under the auspices of the Allentown School District.
In 1994, he decided to create an organization of his own. Camp Compass was born.