Year of the Volunteer Profile: John W. Kennedy
By Mark Ray
By rescuing a Scout troop, he saved himself from a life of anger and bitterness. Now this Venturing Crew 77 Advisor from Madison, N.J., guides young people in an effort to give something back -- and save even more lives.
Like many Eagle Scouts before him, John W. Kennedy of Madison, N.J., visited his old troop soon after college graduation. What he saw impressed him: 35 Scouts and a lot of adults. What he heard distressed him: No one wanted to be Scoutmaster, so the troop would soon shut down.
Not willing to let that happen, Kennedy and two friends, Dave Carey and Bob Beaman, took over Troop 7. They were all in their early 20’s, and none of them knew how to run a Boy Scout troop.
“We were doing it by the seat of our pants. We couldn’t figure things out,” Kennedy said. “Thank goodness there was training available. We learned a great deal by going to council training and watching what the older Scoutmasters did with their troops at camporees. It was a heck of a good learning experience.”
That was in 1978. Thirty years later, all three friends remain active in Scouting. Kennedy is still involved with Troop 7, although he now spends more time as Advisor to its sister unit, Venturing Crew 77. Several times he has tried to transition completely to district and council positions, but each time he’s been drawn back to his old troop by its leadership needs—and by a debt he can never quite repay.
Simply put, Kennedy believes his involvement with Troop 7 saved him from a life of anger and bitterness—or worse. When he was a teenager, his father died unexpectedly, leaving him mad and confused. “It would have been real easy to turn to the dark side,” he said.
But Troop 7’s leaders, men like Ben Russell and Dennis Spencer, wouldn’t let that happen.
“These guys came out of the woodwork, and they kept showing up to support me and to kick my younger brother, Ed, and me in the butt when we needed it,” Kennedy said. “These guys didn’t have to do that. They really didn’t. They had their own lives, their own children. They didn’t need to spend time with me.”
And so, time after time, Kennedy has returned to Troop 7. “Every time the troop would go through a hiccup and we’d lose some key adults, I’d wind up coming back,” he said.
At one point, the troop had gotten down to just four active Scouts, not enough to recharter. “We found a kid in the parking lot shooting hoops,” Kennedy said. “We signed him up, and I paid for him so we’d have our five kids.” Within a few years, the troop had grown to 45 members, and that basketball player had become an Eagle Scout.
Five years ago, Kennedy realized the troop had a different kind of problem. Its older members, including his son Sean, were getting bored and threatening to quit. Kennedy sat them down and told them about Venturing. From that conversation sprang Venturing Crew 77, chartered to Elks Lodge 1465.
Today, members of the coed crew spend many hours working with the Colonial Crossroads Chapter of the American Red Cross. They participate in monthly training on disaster relief, sheltering, first aid, CPR, and related topics. They’ve planned blood drives, participated in disaster simulations, and helped train more than a thousand people in CPR. Several who have graduated continue to volunteer with the Red Cross at college.
The crew members also have plenty of fun. Each year, they participate in activities such as Philmont treks, the Chesapeake Bay High Adventure Sailing Experience, and tours of Washington, D.C. Each time, they pay their own way through fundraising projects, refusing to ask their parents for money.
In planning those trips, Kennedy said, the Venturers acquire life skills that will last even longer than their first-aid training. When they went to Washington, for example, they had to decide if the crew would pay for admission to certain attractions.
“They have wonderful parents that would go into hock to give them anything they want,” Kennedy said. “It’s a great life lesson for them to say, ‘We want to do this, but we can’t afford it.’”
Back home in Madison, Crew 77 also supports Troop 7, running events such as wilderness-survival outings. “The crew wouldn’t have done that without Venturing,” Kennedy said. “They wouldn’t have felt that they needed to give something back to the troop that helped them grow up.”
Or maybe they would have. After all, they have an Advisor who knows something about giving back. And about debts you can never quite repay.
Mark Ray is a frequent contributor to Scouting who lives in Louisville, Ky.