Jim Porter is supposed to be dead.
That's what doctors told him 20 years ago, after his family finally convinced him to see a neurologist about the muscular pain and thickness in his throat. The diagnosis: ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This was before Stephen Hawking and ice bucket challenges; the medical community didn't know a great deal about the disease then, the average person even less. But the doctors did know this: Porter had six months to live, maybe a year.
"We didn't know anything about it, although we certainly would come to learn about it," says Porter's mother, Winnie. "But even then, I knew that if anyone could last a year, it was Jim."
Not one to sit and wait for death's embrace, Porter, 44 at the time of his diagnosis, and his wife, Patty, bought a motor home, piled their two daughters into it, and road-tripped across the United States and Canada for three months. When he returned home, he started making short-term goals.
"First, he wanted to see his kids graduate, then he wanted to see them get married," Patty says. "He just kept making these goals and meeting them, and then setting another one."
And Porter wanted to leave some type of legacy with shotguns. The Long Beach native (who now lives in Tustin) has had a lifelong affair with target shooting. His father was a part-time gunsmith, and Porter grew up winning awards and medals. After opening up a sporting-goods store in Norco in 1979, he discovered a love for coaching.
In 2000, he started So Cal Top Guns, a shooting club for ages 7 to 21. Porter has taught hundreds of Southern Californian kids gun safety and target shooting and created one of the country's most respected youth shotgun-shooting clubs.
"It's about teaching them respect, being responsible, setting goals and having a positive attitude," he says. "It's about perseverance, whether it's on the range or in life. There will always be setbacks and pitfalls, and I tell them you just have to overcome them, move on and have a positive attitude. And laugh–always laugh."
Porter is a stickler for proper dress codes–anyone who shows up with an untucked shirt does mandatory push-ups–as well as grades. Members who are underachieving at school are suspended from shooting. But he isn't just a taskmaster. Porter tutors kids out of his home, talks to their parents, sometimes even their teachers, striving always, he says, "to teach them not just to be champions on the range, but champions in life."
Members aren't the only ones benefiting from the club. "It's the kids who have kept him around," his wife says. "They drive him, and they're a big part of why he's still here."
"I really think they've given me a purpose and something to look forward to," Porter says. "They're kind of like my family. To watch their self-confidence grow and how they bloom right in front of me is so gratifying. It seems every week, a mini-miracle happens."
And speaking of mini-miracles, Porter is still going. On Feb. 21, 20 years to the day since he received his diagnosis, about 75 students, friends and family gathered at a Corona shooting range to celebrate Porter's continuing legacy.
"My doctors tell me, 'We don't know what you're doing or how you're doing it,'" he says, "'but you're doing something right, so keep on doing it.'"