Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, Oct. 2 newspaper on Page A1.
NEW PLYMOUTH — Entrepreneur and firearms instructor Judi Phelps loves to think of her career as also being her hobby.
“People hear about my work and think ‘Oh, that sounds like so much fun, you get to shoot guns all day,’” she said. “But most of my time is spent showing others how to shoot or helping others better their skills.”
Her business, On Guard Defense, is housed in what used to be a summer picnic area used by the McArthur Eagles. She and her husband Scott discovered the shelter, which was just a few doors down from their home in New Plymouth, was for sale a few years ago. Both were travelling to Columbus for work, and together they decided to start a business in the county.
Phelps said that with the popularity of hunting in the area, she was surprised that no other gun range existed in the community.
Phelps is a hard-worker, to say the least. She found a job as a waitress at a when she was just 13, passing off as an 18-year-old, in order to help provide for her family.
She went on to wear many other hats: she has degrees, she was one of the first female certified Novell engineers and a paralegal, to start. She also coordinated Care Outreach ministries for a time.
“I’m a wife, I’m a mom, and I’m my own personal security guard,” Phelps said. She works full-time at On Guard Defense, teaching people of all levels of experience the basics of how to operate a firearm or how to sharpen their skills.
She noted that although the business of guns is rather male-dominated, firearms in and of themselves can be very equalizing tools. In fact, according to Phelps, women who walk away from her sessions are often better shooters than men: more diligent, and more cautious in regards to adhering to safety rules.
“Men often come here and say ‘What do you know about guns?’” she said. “Well, let me just tell you!”
Phelps highlighted that the many women she meets through her business come from all walks of life: single mothers and business professionals alike. She added many of her clients are survivors of sexual assault or partner violence, looking for ways to protect themselves and their children.
Phelps also specializes in unarmed defense education and goes all throughout Southern and Central Ohio to hold self-defense courses and situational awareness training.
“It’s the foundation to any protection,” she said. “Every one of us needs this vital information.”
Situational awareness is, well, knowing and processing what’s going on around you. Phelps pointed out that many people do not practice situational awareness, as they distract themselves when they are in public. Cellphones are a common distraction, for example.
But self-security isn’t Phelps’ only passion. To start, she is a big believer in the importance of boosting tourism in her community. When people reach out to her with interest in On Guard, she often refers them to other businesses in the area, recommending to them other places where they can stop to eat, where they can shop or where they can rest their heads.
“We’re all in this together,” she said. “And we’re just trying to make a positive influence.”
After all, sometimes tourists take root in the lands they explore. Phelps and her family are a testament to this. Her and her husband’s blended family of seven kids, now adults, would often come to the Hocking Hills region for vacations years back. The Phelps family ultimately made their home in Vinton County in 2011.
Phelps is very excited for the remainder of this year and next, as she will open a restaurant, the Velvet Revolver, at her On Guard Defense location. Phelps noted the Hocking Hills region has nearly 2 million tourists take up its vast space each year, but food in Vinton County is limited to a handful of eateries. Often, Phelps would order pizza for the gallery’s patrons when they rented out the gallery for a day, but soon she’ll get to provide them her own menu of freshly prepared and locally sourced meals.
When it comes to goals, Phelps has many. One is to see tourism boost in her community. Another is to see more women situationally aware and armed, but better yet to Phelps, open-carrying. Phelps believes this could deter predatory people from attacking women.
She herself carries her Glock in its holster, front and center.
“In a sea of people, do you think he’s going to pick me?” she said, gesturing to her hip.