By Lynda Natali
It is December 1999, and more than 100 Scouts from rural and urban communities in southeast Florida have come together for a weekend of camping, scuba diving, fishing, and rappelling. The site is the Gulf Stream Council's Camp Tanah Keeta, located 20 miles north of West Palm Beach. It's the third year the council has held the Operation First Class event.
The goal for the annual weekend is to provide a quality Scouting experience for Scouts who face tough economic, social, and other challenges. Organizers hope it can help influence Scouts to stay in school, away from drugs, and on the right track. The weekend also encourages them to advance in Scouting.
"This activity is designed to show the Scouts things that they would never have a chance to participate in," said Jon Davies, former council district executive. "We want to make sure they keep coming back and stay involved."
Activity begins as soon as the Scouts arrive on Friday night; they take swim tests, make patrol flags, set up their campsites, and attend a bountiful cracker barrel featuring tortilla chips, cheese, salsa, chicken wings, and pizza.
Their agenda during the next two days is jammed with a variety of activities, from silk-screening neckerchiefs to a hot-air balloon demonstration.
As the Scouts keep busy their first night in camp, staff members Chris Malin, 16, and Justin Jacobi, 15, are in the kitchen searching for supplies in the walk-in refrigerator, filling giant bowls with nachos and worrying about having enough food for the hungry campers.
They are two of the 40 Order of the Arrow (OA) lodge members chargedright down to the cheesestickswith organizing and running the Operation First Class event. They are the "secret ingredient" in making the weekend a success, council leaders agree. Without their volunteer efforts the program, which is free to all attending Scouts, wouldn't be possible.
Scout executive Ron Oats, who implemented a similar program in the South Florida Council before joining the Gulf Stream Council, said getting the OA's Aal-Pa-Tah Lodge involved was the most important decision he made when trying to get the program up and running at Camp Tanah Keeta. "It is incredible what they have done with this program," he said. "They provide outstanding service."
Ryan Wertepny, 19, is this year's chairman. He and his staff have been busy for months completing the details required to house, feed, and entertain 100 Scouts for three days.
Corporate sponsorship, the other factor in the event's success, turned out to be easier than anticipated, Oats said.
The council contacted Emilio Echave, regional president of AT&T Wireless Communications, about sponsoring the weekendand discovered that not only was his son a Scout, but Echave had attended Camp Tanah Keeta during his own Scouting days.
The company donated $10,000 for the weekend, for food, supplies, and special programs like the rock climbing wall brought in from a sports specialty shop.
By 8 a.m. Saturday, everyone can see that the preparation has been worth the effort. OA staff have served breakfast and now man the activity stations.
An OA Scout is also assigned to accompany each troop as a guide, staying with the Scouts for the weekend, interacting with the younger Scouts, and helping out as needed.
This is critical for the Scouts in Troop 941, says assistant Scoutmaster Paul Marcinek. "Where we live in Okeechobee, it is hard to find experienced Scouts," he explains. "Here, the kids get to see other Scouts in action."
Their year-old troop is one of only a few in their area, Marcinek says. Leaders, as well as boys, are learning new skills.
Minutes after meeting the Scouts from Troop 941, guide Mike Volk, 18, is treated like one of the gang. This is Mike's second time on staff at Operation First Class, and he enjoys the leadership role.
"Being a troop guide is a good assignment," says Mike, who is considering majoring in architecture in college. "It gives the Scouts a mentor, someone to look up to."
Operation First Class helps Scouts reach their goals. Last year, for example, only two Scouts in Troop 941 passed the swim test. Knowing they would face the water again this year, the troop practiced during the summerand it shows. This second time around, all nine Scouts successfully complete the four-lap test.
"Passing that test really is a big step," says Scoutmaster Bryant Hicks.
Besides being a confidence booster, swimming is an important skill to know when living near Lake Okeechobee.
As Hicks looks on, Scout Jarrett Kirchman, 13, takes his aquatic skills to a new level. He walks slowly underwater, learning to breathe through the hose attached to scuba tanks on his back.
"This is a great program," notes Hicks, adding that activities like scuba diving and rappelling aren't available to the Scouts in their home communities. "They look forward to it every year."
In the meantime, 37 Scouts from six troops in Belle Glades near Lake Okeechobee in the Florida Everglades are getting to know each other.
Salvador Santoyo, 11, and Robert Franco, 12, spent the morning perfecting their aim at the rifle range, testing their archery skills, and learning first aid. Now they are tying knots and lashings and waiting for the lunch bell. All this fun has made them hungry.
The two Scouts are the type of youth the Gulf Stream Council hopes to reach during the weekend.
Salvador explains that he joined Scouting two years earlier when he was in fifth grade. He decided to check it out after a friend told him it was fun.
However, there was a problem. His friend also told him it cost money. After getting a little help from the council, he was able to join. He proudly explains that he earned the $18 needed to buy his Scout uniform by working with his mother on Saturdays at an aluminum can recycling center.
As he and Robert sit together telling jokes and waiting for lunch, the pair explain what they like most about their weekend at Operation First Class.
"It's cool," says Salvador. "I would like to thank AT&T for giving us these T-shirts."
"It's fun," Robert adds. "We can do things we've never done before."
Freelance writer Lynda Natali lives in Savannah, Ga.
A Leadership Opportunity for Staff
The lady with the alligator is late. So Ryan Wertepny sits on a log in the parking lot of Camp Tanah Keeta waiting for his cell phone to ring. In the meantime, the walkie-talkie he also hangs onto begins blurting his name. "Ryan, Ryan, where do you want the kids? Do you have an estimated time of arrival?"
The nature program was supposed to start 10 minutes earlier, and the nearly 100 Scouts mingling in the dining hall are getting anxious.
After explaining that there is still no sign of the woman putting on the nature program, his cell phone finally goes off.
"Hi," he says. "Are you lost?"
Yes, she explains, she is. She accidentally went to the Girl Scout Camp a f ew miles away. After getting her re-routed, Ryan rallies the troops to the mini-amphitheater.
Another obstacle removed.
At first glance, it looks like Ryan Wertepny is in charge. And he issort of.
The 19-year-old Troop 197 assistant Scoutmaster and Palm Beach County Community College sophomore is the lead man in this Operation First Class event.
Wertepny and about 40 other Order of the Arrow (OA) members run the weekend. It gives them an opportunity to experience the challengesand rewardsof organizing and implementing a multi-event, three-day program for at-risk youth.
"It is a unique and special thing that is available through Scouting," said lodge Adviser Fred Danaher. "I don't know where else a youth can be in charge of something like this."
Besides planning and running the program, the OA members also must allocate the $10,000 budget for the weekend. This gives staffers the chance to broaden their service and skills beyond more typical service chores, like repairing a roof or cutting back trees.
Plus, it puts them directly in contact with the young Scouts, where they can have an impact on young lives.
It is Ryan Wertepny's third year with Operation First Class and his second year at the helm.
"With Ryan's talent and experience, we didn't have to be very involved," said Danaher. "We were confident."
It isn't easy, however, as Wertepny discovered. Especially when the unexpected happenslike a broken water pipe the previous night, or the "lost" woman with the alligator.
"It's a good learning experience," said Wertepny, who, besides running this event is in the middle of his college final exams. "As long as the kids are smiling and happy, that's what matters."
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