Ryan McDonald

South Bay’s Troop 713 keeps launching kids to Boy Scouts’ highest honor

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From left: Kevin Kohles, John Luce, Jonathan Anderson, Assistant Scoutmaster R.J. Thomas, Cole Thomas, Scoutmaster Stephen Johnson, Christian Olsen, Zachary Gonzales, Cameron Stern, Cian Ward, Henry Johnson, and Nicholas Anderson at an Eagle Court of Honor Ceremony for Gonzales and Olsen on Saturday. All but Ward are part of Troop 713, which draws from the Beach Cities and has produced 19 Eagle Scouts in the last two years. Photo by Kevin Cody 

The Eagles have landed

by Ryan McDonald

It was a summer of warm currents and tropical fish. Some years ago, an unknown quirk of meteorology raised the water temperature around Catalina Island, and brought exotic sealife to its shores. Unfamiliar hues darted among the orange (garibaldi) and the gray (porpoises, dolphins and, yes, sharks). 

Manhattan Beach native Christian Olsen was there at Camp Emerald Bay, on Catalina’s west end, with other members of Boy Scout Troop 713, which draws from the Beach Cities. Along with the camp’s slate of land activities, Olsen and his fellow troop members made time for snorkeling. During one of these sojourns in the sea, Olsen stumbled into a thick patch of kelp. Vine-like strands spiraled around his ankle. With the circulating movement of the ocean current slowly drawing him parallel to the shore, he felt as if someone, or something, were trying to drag him under.

“I almost panicked… no, I did panic,” Olsen told a crowd to laughs at the King Harbor Yacht Club Saturday afternoon. Olsen, 18, was at an Eagle Court of Honor ceremony, where he and Hermosa resident Zach Gonzales were recognized for attaining the rank of Eagle Scout.

Eagle is the highest rank a Boy Scout can reach. Along with years of time spent in scouting, achieving the rank of Eagle requires completion of a demanding service project and navigating a fastidious bureaucracy. Gonzales’ father George recalled hearing of one Eagle-hopeful who was sent home from a panel interview because one of the scout’s several dozen merit badges had been sewn on at an angle.

“They make the government look easy,” George said of Eagle review boards.

Approximately three percent of scouts who enter the program achieve the rank of Eagle. Despite these long odds, scouts from Troop 713 have done it again and again. Over the course of 2018 and 2019, 19 of Troop 713’s roughly 40 Scouts earned the rank of Eagle. (That figure includes Gonzales and Olsen, who earned their Eagle last year but, as is common, waited to hold their Court of Honor ceremony, so that fellow scouts away at college could attend while they were in town for the holidays.)

The rate of success has not gone unnoticed. Stephen Johnson, the troop’s scoutmaster, said that the Boy Scouts of America made Troop 713 one of a small number of troops throughout the country that were included in a study that looked at why particular troops produced so many Eagles. Johnson shook his head as he recalled filling out a survey that included detailed questions, some of which seemed to have little to do with scouting.

Christian Olsen, center, with his parents Sharon and Bryan, at his Eagle Court of Honor Ceremony Saturday. Photo by Ryan McDonald

Along with the simple luck of having driven kids from supportive homes, Johson, troop parents and the scouts themselves offer a portrait of a troop whose members are especially close to one another and notably connected to their community. Scouts in the South Bay, where many parents have high expectations about their children’s post-high school plans, face pressure to pursue an array of time-consuming activities to boost their chances of getting into college. Becoming an Eagle Scout is its own kind of resume booster, but the kids of Troop 713 have made it as far as they have because of their ability to find value in the program outside of the badges it might immediately bestow.

Olsen, now in his freshman year at the University of Arizona, used the few minutes he had to speak at the Court of Honor to thank his parents, scoutmaster Johnson, and his uncle Terry Ward, an engineer who helped him with his Eagle project, an enclosure for sporting goods at St. Joseph School in Hawthorne. But he also took time to reflect on some of the lessons scouting had taught him. Despite his moment of panic, he had clearly made it out of the kelp bed that day on Catalina. Doing so, he said, helped prepare him for the snares incumbent in any Eagle project — and the setbacks likely to pop up in the future.

“A lot of times, you don’t know what’s going to come along to try to drag you down. But as long as you can keep your head above water, you can keep breathing. You can keep going,” Olsen said.

 

From pack to troop

Scoutmaster Johnson grew in the South Bay, and as a kid was a member of Troop 849 in Manhattan. Troop 713 was around then, too. But, perhaps a victim of the same population shift that closed Johnson’s alma mater Aviation High School, it eventually shuttered. Other South Bay troops, including 849 and 860, managed to hang on. But by 2011, the center of gravity in the region’s demographics had shifted once again, and a group of parents petitioned to reopen Troop 713. Rather than siphon off from the other troops, Johnson said, enrollment in all three has grown.

Troop 713 remains relatively small, but its tight-knit character may be part of the reason that so many of its scouts have achieved the Eagle rank. Traditionally, kids transition from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts in fifth or sixth grade. In 2012, 13 scouts from Cub Scout Pack 860 made the move to Troop 713, just a year after it had restarted. Of those 13, seven have earned the Eagle rank in the last two years.

Hermosa resident Dina Stern was the den leader of Pack 860 from 2008 through 2012. All but one of the kids she oversaw in those years made the jump from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, also an improbably high percentage. She recalled that James Olivas, the son of astronaut and Manhattan resident Danny Olivas, encouraged kids a few years younger than him — the cohort now racking up Eagle awards — to make their mark on the newly reformed troop.

Olsen pins an award on his uncle Terry Ward for helping with his Eagle project. Photo by Ryan McDonald

“I think that’s why we’ve had a lot of people get their Eagle award,” Stern said. “It gave the kids a chance to settle into one troop. Having that encouraged them to move on together.”

The group that moved from 860 to 713 includes Hermosa resident Jonathan Anderson, who last year built a windmill in Salt Lake City, Utah for his Eagle project.

“We’re smaller. Our scoutmaster Stephen goes out of his way to make [the scouting experience] personalized,” he said.

Johnson is clearly proud of his charges, yet loathe to take much credit, or pontificate on the reasons for 713’s achievements. He worries about detracting from the accomplishment of the Eagle Award, which he calls “a singular individual achievement.” Having never reached the rank of Eagle himself, he sometimes feels awkward presiding at Court of Honor Ceremonies, and on Saturday handed off some of the duties to Anderson.

George and Lisa Gonzales with their son Zach. The Hermosa resident became an Eagle Scout last year. Photo by Ryan McDonald

Anderson was a fitting choice. He is now studying at the Southern California Regional Occupational Center in Torrance, and hopes to work in underwater welding. Welding, coincidentally, became an official Boy Scout Merit Badge the year Anderson and the other 12 in his cohort joined 713. It’s part of a little-noticed change in the nature of scouting itself. The stereotypical image of scouting, of “kids in neckerchiefs tying knots” as Zach Gonzales put it, is giving way to something with a more high-tech feel. Along with welding, other merit badges to have been created and blessed by the Boy Scouts of America since Troop 713 came back into existence are Robotics, Programming, and Animation.

The classic outdoor activities are still a part of it — a scout meeting is surely the only place in contemporary America where one can hear a teenager utter the word “orienteering” — but the modern Boy Scout troop manages to combine the tents-and-canoes past with an emerging STEM focus. Johnson gave the example of a troop that visited a lengthy zip line suspended over a canyon; members of the troop might calculate the angle of depression from the line’s beginning to its end.

The Boy Scout has always been a Renaissance Man. Along with campground stand-bys like Archery and Bugling, the original list of merit badges when the Boy Scouts began in 1911 included Chemistry, Electricity, even Sculpture. But the national program began placing greater emphasis on engagement with STEM fields in recent years in response to what it described as concern that “our country is falling behind” in those subject areas. It developed the Nova Awards program, which provides recognition for developing science skills.

While the Nova is relatively new, South Bay Scouts have so far been among those most likely to earn the awards, capturing three of the four awarded in L.A. County last year. Johnson attributed this to scouts availing themselves of help from professionals living in the Beach Cities. Sometimes they are troop parents, as in the case of Hermosa resident Carter Fortunato, an Eagle Scout whose father Robert lent his experience in the sustainability field. And sometimes they are community members who were Eagle Scouts themselves and are now at the top of their fields, including aerospace engineers and cardiac surgeons. Interacting with these people, Johnson said, helps kids develop not just technology skills but also frequently taken-for-granted abilities like email etiquette and meeting deadlines.  

“That’s really how the path has changed: Pick from a diverse range of fields, become passionate about something, and encourage others to participate,” Johnson said. 

Support system

Liza Anderson, mother of Jonathan, remembers when the kids now emerging from 713 were “a squirrely little bunch” of first and second graders. In the Cub Scouts, most of the work is done by parents. The transition to Boy Scouts is intended to mark the shift in kids doing things for themselves. But while Scouts do begin to plant own tent stakes and assemble their own packs, parents don’t fade from the picture.

Hermosa resident Jennifer Logan is the Community Chair of 713, which entails administration, finance, and just about everything else behind the scenes. (“We all report to her,” Anderson joked.) Like others, she tied the troop’s large number of Eagle Scouts to connections formed in those early, squirrely days — connections not just among kids, but among adults, too.

“This particular group was committed, and the parents were too. It does take a lot of commitment from the parents,” she said.

For some of the kids in Troop 713, this show of support from adults pushed them to take the program seriously. Gonzales, whose Eagle project involved building targets for the water polo program at Redondo Union High School, said he knew early on that he would stick with scouting to the end.

“If I’m doing something, I might as well commit to it fully,” he said.

Hermosa native Cameron Stern, 19, was another one of those who “bridged” from 860 to 713. As he moved through high school and scouting, he became taken with the idea of commitment itself.

“I just wanted to finish something I’d started,” said Stern, who made and distributed tote bags for kids at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles suffering from the same heart condition he once dealt with.

But others respond differently to the pressure of busy schedules. For many kids, the difference between sticking with scouting, or any other demanding activity, and abandoning it may have less to do with individual determination than the support systems built up around them.

Michael Lynch is another Troop 713 Eagle Scout. Lynch, now partway through his first year at the University of Notre Dame, comes from a long line — a convocation, zoologists might say — of Eagles. His dad was an Eagle Scout, and so were both of his grandparents and an older brother. Unlike many of the other members of 713, however, he did not begin his scouting career in the South Bay. He was born in Maryland, and started in Cub Scouts there. He and his family moved to El Segundo when he was in middle school.

Getting involved on the west coast was easy. He quickly met kids at school who were involved in scouting, and before long he was immersed in the activities in Troop 713. But then came high school: classes got harder, homework took longer, and the spare hours into which Lynch had fit scouting became scarce. He didn’t formally quit, but he stopped going to meetings. “I took a break,” he said. He knew that many scouts go through what he was experiencing.

“Once you get to a certain point, it gets tough with school. Kids stick with it for a while, but it’s pretty common to stray,” Lynch said.

Lynch met Christian Olsen through scouting, and they became close friends. But because Lynch lived in El Segundo and Olsen in Manhattan, not participating in scouting meant that Lynch no longer saw his friend. Olsen, Lynch said, reached out, and convinced him to return to the program.

Lynch’s story feels as though it were plucked from emerging public health wisdom about companionship, some of which is embodied in the Beach Cities Health District’s Blue Zones program. According to a 2018 study from Cigna, a health services firm, roughly half of all Americans sometimes or always feel alone. This problem is more commonly analyzed from the perspective of the elderly: a government commission on loneliness in the United Kingdom, for example, found in 2017 that being alone robbed roughly as many years from the end of a life as a pack-a-day cigarette habit. But the Cigna study offered another sobering statistic: the loneliest adults in the country were those between the ages of 18 and 22 — the cohort that includes most of 713’s recent Eagles.

“I feel like it was a collective effort. You see one person doing it, staying active, it makes you want to do the same,” Lynch said.

Stories like these help Johnson endure cold nights on the hard ground of a Yosemite backpacking trip. He thrills at the perspective he is afforded, of seeing kids develop into young men. They may join about the same age, but within months of starting the program, each scout is on a different path, a reflection of their passions and personalities. Scouting, he said, is the force guiding from the background, the “drumbeat” of adolescence.

“When I ask kids what they’re most passionate about, scouting is never No. 1. Maybe it’s No. 2 or No. 3, but it’s a constant. You find a new sport, then maybe you quit. You think you want to be a fireman, then maybe you want to be a brain surgeon. Scouting is there through all of it,” Johnson said.

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