By Layne Cameron
Aaron Lyles, senior patrol leader of Detroit's Troop 194, admits that if he weren't involved in Scouting, he'd probably be part of another active neighborhood youth group - a street gang.
"I really believe if I weren't in the troop, I'd be in a gang and doing drugs," he says.
Crystal Lyles, Aaron's mother, couldn't be happier with the fact that Aaron and her other sons, Adrian and Alex, have chosen to become members of Troop 194.
"Scouting keeps them off the street and out of trouble," she says. "Instead of being lured into a gang, they're setting an example for their friends."
A single parent, Mrs. Lyles has also chosen to become involved with the troop - as a leader in the "Mothers Club," a group of Scout moms which caters for troop award banquets (and who, in the process, are able to spend more time with their sons).
The Lyles family is typical of the membership of Troop 194, which is chartered to St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church on Detroit's west side, an area the Detroit Free Press cited as having the city's highest rate of youth crime and gang activity.
The neighborhood abounds with visual evidence of urban decline - abandoned buildings peppered with graffiti, trash strewn in empty lots, and idle bands of intimidating youth.
In the words of one prominent troop alumnus, the Rev. Dennis Duggan, the neighborhood harbors "some bad paths which are very inviting to youth."
In the midst of this bleak urban landscape, Troop 194 continues to thrive. Founded in 1922, the unit is Detroit's oldest Scout troop, having served more than 2,500 members in its 77-year history. It has produced a roster of more than 150 Eagle Scouts, a Rhodes Scholar candidate, two graduates of the United States Naval Academy, and a dozen Catholic priests. Today there's a 500-member alumni association, and almost every one of the unit's adult leaders was once a Scout in Troop 194.
"Troop 194 serves as proof that Scouting really does make a difference in the lives of young people," says Detroit Area Council Scout Executive John M. Primrose, "and not just in 'the good old days,' but continuously, for many years."
Part of the troop's success stems from the strong foundation provided by its chartered organizations. The troop's first home was St. Cecilia Church, where (as the official troop history tells it), "on a bleak winter evening in February 1922, a prospective Scoutmaster and 22 timid boys assembled in the parish hall to receive from the Boy Scouts of America a charter to organize Troop 194."
In 1968, the troop moved from St. Cecilia to its current home at the church of St. Gregory the Great in the adjacent parish.
A solid relationship exists between troop and church. It seems the Rev. Ronald DeHondt loves to brag about his Scouts to other priests. He has good reason, too, because the troop can be counted on to carry out any service project with enthusiasm and thoroughness.
One such project is "Operation Clean Sweep," which resulted from Father DeHondt's belief that preserving the sanctity of the church also involves tending to the area which it serves. As a result, all the Scouts participate in cleaning up the neighborhood's streets and playgrounds.
"Father DeHondt trusts us to have keys to the church, and codes to the alarm," says assistant Scoutmaster Joe Zwolinski. "He can count on us to carry the flags and usher the Masses on Scout Sunday, and in return we have his complete support."
The troop's service commitment extends to both community and church. In a typical year, the Scouts provide approximately 2,300 hours of civic/community service and 1,700 hours of help to the church and school.
A second key element in the success of Troop 194 is committed adult leadership. The troop prefers to groom its own leaders rather than recruit adults who are new to the community or unfamiliar with the troop. As as result, almost every one of the current adult leaders was once a Scout in the troop.
"It's no secret," says Zwolinski of the approach to recruiting leaders. "We ask the boys to come back as leaders [when they are adults] with the goal that they'll replace us someday."
Michael Manthiram is one of six current adult leaders who earned his Eagle Scout rank when he was a Scout with the troop. Following graduation from Michigan State University, he returned to serve the troop as an assistant Scoutmaster.
"Our program hasn't changed much over the years - because it works," says Manthiram, who was the troop's 145th Eagle Scout. "And being involved with Scouting has given these boys a better life." As evidence, assistant Scoutmaster Zwolinski notes that "more than 90 percent of our [recent] Scouts have gone on to college."
A third key to the troop's success is its philosophy that an effective program whose influence leads members to a better life requires a heavy emphasis on personal discipline mixed in with standard Scouting activities.
"We march, drill, and have uniform inspections at our meetings every Thursday," explains Scoutmaster Dan Mitchell, who was the troop's Eagle Scout No. 127 and has served as Scoutmaster for the last 16 years. By using this approach," he notes, "we give the boys discipline, guidance, and goals."
So dynamic is this emphasis that the troop officially calls itself "The West Point of Scouting."
Visitors at a troop court of honor note this distinction immediately. The chain of command is apparent in the ranks as the older boys lead and direct others to set up tables and chairs, erect flags, and lash display boards.
One Scout arrives late (the only one who was tardy) and is admonished, not by the adults, but by his fellow Scouts.
"I deserved it," says Odell Neal, Tenderfoot, math tutor, and designated "expert of funny stuff." "I know these guys care about me and watch out for me."
The sharp notes of a bugle call signal that the program is about to begin.
"Detail! Attention!" commands Marcus Perry, junior assistant Scoutmaster. "March! Detail, forward half step!"
Scouts snap to attention and march in formation to the stage. They file past, uniforms pressed, "gig line" straight, leather shoes shined, and retro-style Scout field caps donned correctly.
Another troop tradition is the use of special, gold-striped neckerchiefs to designate troop junior leadership. While the Scouts in each patrol wear a solid, dark blue neckerchief bearing a white Scout sign, the neckerchief for senior patrol leaders is green; for patrol leaders, red; assistant patrol leaders, blue; and new junior assistant Scoutmasters, maroon. (Adult Scouters and experienced junior assistant Scoutmasters wear a dark green leader's necktie.)
The leadership neckerchiefs are worn with pride, the court of honor program text notes, because "Leadership positions within the troop must be earned. The Scout must show leadership and responsibility, advance in rank in a timely manner, and be willing to set the example for his fellow Scouts to follow."
Adults and junior leaders organize the 12-month program schedule, and the troop's membership of about 25 Scouts carries it out.
"We schedule a camp-out, field trip, or special activity every month, to make sure the Scouts understand what lies beyond the inner-city streets," says Joe Zwolinski. Each month's program has a different theme and includes visits by African American men who tell the Scouts what it took to become successful in their field of expertise, says Zwolinski, noting that "successful" does not necessarily mean wealthy or famous.
Ask any alumnus or Scout what the highlight of the troop year is, and they will respond: "Mackinac Island!"
For 54 years, the troop has been selected to serve one week as the honor guard to Michigan's governor at the scenic vacation area in the state's upper peninsula.
This tradition originated during the late Scoutmaster William Greany's 45-year tenure. Greany, who was also the troop's 51st Eagle Scout, contacted the state park with the idea of doing community service and also serving as the honor guard at historic Fort Mackinac.
Greany's offer was accepted. Ever since, the troop has spent a week on the island combining service duty with a summer camp experience that provides opportunities for earning many merit badges.
In addition to serving as escorts for the governor, who has a summer residence on the island, the troop's duties include raising and lowering the flag at the fort (they are responsible for raising and lowering a total of 27 different flags each day), providing mail and messenger service, and carrying out other service projects.
However, the prestigious assignments are outweighed, at least in the boys' minds, by the island's other attractions - its famous homemade fudge, horseback and bicycle rides, beach volleyball, nature hikes, and swimming in the chilly lake water.
Few boys have ever been quoted as saying, "Yippee, I'd love to have more discipline, structure, and chores in my life!" Yet these Scouts seem to understand that taking on such responsibilities and following the directives of their peers will build a better future.
As a Cub Scout, assistant Scoutmaster Richard Hoye watched his role model, big brother Carlton (Eagle No. 146), rise through the ranks, earn his Eagle Scout badge, and go on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.
At 5 foot 11 and 220 pounds, Richard could have "sluffed off" school and Scouting and used football as his way out of the neighborhood. Instead he chose to follow in his brother's spit-shined steps.
"My mom says that throwing a football isn't the only way out," explains Hoye (Eagle No. 149), who attends Wayne State University and plans to join the Navy.
A Troop 194 court of honor concludes with Scouts and Scouters ascending the risers and performing another troop tradition, singing. The upbeat songs close the program on a high note.
One Scout projecting his voice with confidence is Michael Cox. He joined the troop at a late age, 16, when he noticed how much fun his younger brother, Ryan, was having. With a helpful nudge from his mother, Michael became a Scout. "It was humbling, taking orders from an 11-year-old patrol leader," he admits.
In less than two years, however, Michael, who would become the troop's 154th Eagle Scout, blitzed through the ranks.
Wanting to continue flying higher, Michael said he hoped to be accepted into the Air Force Academy and study medicine. "I was inspired by the Ben Carson story," he explains. "He was a poor African American from Detroit, and he succeeded."
Judging by Troop 194's resume and listening to their "sky's the limit" crooning, Michael Cox - and many of his fellow Scouts - will accomplish whatever they set out to do.
Freelance writer Layne Cameron lives in Indianapolis, Ind.
For the majority of Troop 194's alumni, achievement, dedication to country, and community service doesn't end upon graduation.
George Porretta, the troop's Eagle Scout No. 16, is now a retired surgeon living in nearby Bloomfield Township. "Our Scoutmaster instilled in all of us a sense of responsibility and service to our country and community," he says.
Bill Albert, Eagle No. 96, lives in Overland Park, Kan., and works as a zone manager for DaimlerChrysler. "The leadership role was the hallmark and focus of the troop," he says.
"The troop has become a family tradition and an institution of inspiration, reverence, and leadership," Scoutmaster Daniel Mitchell writes in the troop court of honor program in praise of the alumni. "Several of our graduates minister in the priesthood. Hundreds have served in the armed forces, with many having merited ratings of responsibility or command. Eleven have given their lives for America. Without known exception, our Scouts occupy honorable places in life. Many have also engaged in Scout leadership."
Troop graduates like George Porretta and Bill Albert can be proud those traditions will continue.
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