Scouting through the pandemic

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The members of Boy Scout Troop 4 Purdys. Photo courtesy of Trip Balch.

About a year ago, a group of six boys from Boy Scout Troop 4 Purdys went on a week-long sailing trip through the Florida Keys, living and working on a 45-foot sailboat. When they weren’t running the boat, they fished and snorkeled. It was a trip none of them will ever forget. Then the pandemic hit.

In the year since, Troop 4’s leaders have worked hard to retain as much normalcy for the boys as is possible in a time of lockdowns, social distancing and quarantines. By its very nature, Scouting exists to teach invaluable life skills. Undoubtedly the pandemic has taught lessons in resilience that this troop will carry with them for the rest of their lives. They were forced to adapt to new ways of getting together, to accept canceled plans, and to adjust project planning timelines. Despite all of the obstacles they faced, the troop continued to meet and take part in monthly activities.  A few of the pack’s highest-ranking boys even carried out their Eagle Scout projects, the highest achievement attainable in the Scouts program.

“We’ve had three Scouts who did their entire Eagle projects during the pandemic,” said Trip Balch, a Troop 4 Scoutmaster. Jasper Gitlitz, a junior at Loomis-Chafee School in Windsor, CT, Tyler Sandor, a junior at North Salem High School and Colin Smith, a junior at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, each spent the past year leading Scout projects that collectively required over five hundred hours of community service effort.

For his project, Gitlitz partnered with SPACE on Ryder Farm, a nonprofit artists residency program and organic farm in Brewster. “I have a passion for theater, and Ryder Farm is a place I always really loved,” Gitlitz said. Together, Gitlitz and the executives at SPACE decided that creating bench seating for their artists to sit throughout the 127-acre property would be useful.

“They have such a beautiful campus. I’m hoping that these benches will bring people there and allow people to more easily enjoy their space,” Gitlitz said.

Jasper Gitlitz sits with Emily Simoness, Executive Director of SPACE on Ryder Farm, and others on the benches he built for his Eagle Scout project. Photo courtesy of SPACE on Ryder Farm.

Sandor focused his efforts on finding a way to help the Croton Falls Fire Department, of which his father is a member. “I knew I wanted to do a project for them. I went to the firehouse, spoke with the firefighters, and they suggested a fall-out tower,” said Sandor.

A fall-out tower is used to teach firefighters, using appropriate equipment, how to fall out of a window when necessary in the course of an emergency. “Tyler built them this tower so that they could practice here in town instead of having to go elsewhere for training,” Balch said.

The fall-out tower built by Tyler Sandor for the Croton Falls Fire Department. Photo courtesy of Trip Balch.

Smith chose to focus his project on enhancing Mountain Lakes. Having spent most of his childhood summers there, first as a camper and then as a counselor-in-training, the park was very close to his heart. “They have a fire pit ring there, but they didn’t have any seating around it,” Smith said. The recreation department suggested some custom seating to give wedding and events guests a place to gather. Smith did his research and eventually chose a style of seating known as a Viking chair. The simplicity of the design—two interlocking wooden boards—enables flat storage.

Colin Smith's Viking chairs. He built 20 of them for Mountain Lakes. Photo courtesy of Trip Balch.

Smith’s original plan was to teach the Junior Park Rangers at Mountain Lakes how to build their own Viking chair in person. Those plans were canceled due to covid so he pivoted to creating a video tutorial. In hindsight, he thinks the tutorial will have a longer term benefit, as anyone can refer back to it at any time to follow the necessary steps at their own pace.

Balch remarked that the Eagle Scout projects represented a culmination of all the learning the Scouts have gained over the past several years with the troop. “Each little step along the way in scouting leads to somebody who can do stuff like this,” he said. “They could not have organized their projects, collected the necessary equipment and supplies, and fundraised had they not learned all of these other leadership lessons as part of being a leader at a slightly younger age.”

Balch explained that one of the fundamental tenets of scouting is child-led leadership, by which the scouts themselves are the ones who are supposed to plan and organize activities, while also teaching younger scouts. “The older scouts teach the younger scouts and help them through the ranks. This might be the only place today where teenagers truly have the opportunity to learn how to be leaders,” he said, noting how many children's activities are adult directed.

When they weren’t working on their Eagle Scout projects, Gitlitz, Smith and Sandor spent the past year with their fellow Troop 4 members organizing local hikes, shorter overnight hikes, a trip to a ropes course and more. All three have been involved in scouting since elementary school and all three hope to maintain their involvement with scouting even after they earn their Eagle Scout recognition.

“The Scouts is a really great community,” said Gitlitz. “It teaches you a lot about life skills that you don’t really learn in school, while you also get this great bond with people in your troop.” And, according to Balch, it’s far better than the alternative.

“Sitting in their basement every day playing video games is not the best way for teenage boys to live.”

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