It would be easy to drive past the small Baptist church in the needy neighborhood on the city’s east side without noticing its rotting wood playground set. In fact, most people bypass this neighborhood completely, steering away from its pock-marked narrow streets and boarded-up houses.
But one teenager volunteering in a mission outreach to children at the church last summer did notice — and decided to do something about it.
John Haden Smith, then 17, knew the children in the neighborhood wanted and deserved a sturdy and safe playground set. He had a locker full of tools, mission-hewed building skills, and best of all, a group of friends, youth and adults, dedicated to serving the community.
As a member of Selma, Alabama’s Boy Scout Troop 46, founded in 1955, John Haden knew he could count on his troop — from the youngest Scout, 13-year-old James Caleb Duncan, to the 77-year-old lawyer and Head Scoutmaster Fred McCormick — to live up to the Boy Scout oath, “to help other people at all times.”
He knew his troop would step up and serve, just as they had over the years when they cleaned up the city ballpark, built outdoor seating at a museum, volunteered at the animal shelter, repaired a basketball court, cleared hiking trails at a state park, refinished floors at the YMCA, indexed books at the library, cleaned up church lots, and planted gardens.
And he believed that planning and completing this project would help him earn the coveted Eagle Scout award, the highest rank of Scouting, something he promised his beloved grandfather Harry “Teddy” Holloway, who died in 2018, he would do.
“He never became an Eagle Scout and always regretted it,” John Haden said.
Loss in Membership
In its heyday in the 1970s, there were more than 6.5 million Scouts in Boy Scouts of America (BSA), a robust 112-year-old national organization focused on building boys into strong, capable, and caring young men. But scandals with Scout leaders and self-sabotaging decisions by the national council hit hard, bankrupting the organization and causing a precipitous loss of members.
In 2021 the BSA reached an $850 million settlement with more than 60,000 men who sued the iconic institution over alleged sexual abuse by Scoutmasters over several decades. One news agency called it “A wholesome U.S. institution poisoned by predators.” Today Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts report fewer than 1 million members nationwide.
Hardworking Volunteers Teach Important Values
But at the core of Boy Scouts are home-grown troops such as No. 46, like hundreds across the country, that still project the wholesome, fresh-faced exuberance of Scouting, with hardworking Scoutmasters who are leaders in their communities, volunteering their time to teach good citizenship, self-reliance, leadership, and community service to Scouts who are unfailingly polite, hardworking, athletic, and active in their churches and schools. It’s a story Troop 46 says doesn’t get told enough.
“The Boy Scouts made me the person I am today,” said Scoutmaster Dr. Richard Johnson, head of surgery at the local hospital. A 1988 Eagle Scout, Johnson is passionate about the importance of Scouting, dedicating hours of his limited free time to the troop, including leading Sea Base and Boundary Water canoeing adventures.
“Any topic I was interested in, I could learn more about. I got every merit badge but book binding and bee keeping,” he said. “Scouting is about providing a great environment for kids to learn important life lessons; leadership, dependability, maturity, respect.
On a recent Monday night, Troop 46 met in the fellowship room of the downtown church where the troop has met weekly for the past 67 years. Two Scouts were playing ping pong, several Scouts talked to their Scoutmasters about their planned community service projects, a requirement for Eagle Scout, while others worked on merit badges. It takes 21 badges to pave the way for Eagle status.
Johnson arrived in scrubs with his Scout son Jack, 15, and talked to Scout Will Lewis about his upcoming interview for the Eagle Scout award. They also talked about last May’s Sea Base excursion. Lewis was one of the lead sailors on the boating adventure near the Virgin Islands that Johnson led, where snorkeling, swimming, sailing, and studying salt ponds and sea turtles were part of the six-day adventure.
Enjoying the Great Outdoors
Lewis ended his summer with a 10-day backpacking trek through the mountainous wilderness at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.
“It’s definitely the best part of Boy Scouts — being outdoors,” he said.
For Troop 46 Scouts, the most important Scout meeting place is the great outdoors, whether it’s the high adventure camps around the U.S. or a weekend at a local lake. Knot-tying and fire building (without matches) contests, fishing, canoeing, and sleeping on hammocks under a star-studded sky rank as the best part of Scouting.
“Scoutmaster McCormick’s homemade blueberry cobbler cooked over an open fire is a great treat,” Lewis said. “Except for that time I mistook salt for sugar,” the Scoutmaster added.
Scoutmasters Harold Wells and Robert Stapler, who have served with McCormick for 40 years, have lost count of the number of camping trips, service projects, merit badges, high adventures, and meetings they have volunteered in over the years. But they do know that since the troop was founded, more than 117 Scouts became Eagle Scouts, and eight to 10 should earn it in 2022-23. The Eagle Scout rank is earned by less than 6 percent of Scouts nationally.
Like John Haden’s playground project, most of Selma’s Scout service projects have gone unnoticed. On a chilly Saturday morning, John Haden led a team of his fellow Scouts, leaders, and others to dismantle the old and begin building the new set. He had raised $3,000 to pay for new pieces. Scoutmaster McCormick showed up to lend support despite a recent surgery. “It’s a real good project,” he said.
It took several weeks — interrupted by a sports tournament and rainy weather — and lots of trips to the hardware store and lumber yard, which is fortunately just a few blocks away, to finish the project.
The reward came on a sunny afternoon a few weeks later when it was “tested” by some of the same children who had wanted to play the previous summer. The magic of playground fun was heard in the children’s laughter and squeals of delight as they were climbing, sliding, swinging, and racing around the Scout-built set. Finally, one 4-year-old boy standing atop the six-foot platform called out with glee, “I’m king of the mountain,” and John Haden, now an Eagle Scout, knew just how he felt.