WHEN LYN GRAVES’ SON J.J. was old enough for Boy Scouting, the Omaha Eagle Scout decided to become a troop leader. Instead of joining one of the area’s many strong suburban troops, though, Graves looked for opportunities in the inner city. He eventually teamed up with the Mid-America Council’s Scoutreach program and with Leigh Hart, a Lutheran minister working with families served by the Omaha Housing Authority.
Twelve years later, Graves remains Scoutmaster of Troop 33, which consists mostly of first- and second-generation immigrants from South Sudan. Along the way, he has touched countless lives in Omaha and far beyond, including his first Eagle Scout, Buey Ray Tut, who created a nonprofit organization called Aqua-Africa that drills freshwater wells in South Sudan.
Why start a troop in the inner city? I’d been on several short-term missions with my church and wanted to engage in a cross-cultural experience. It’s something I wanted to expose my kids to. They loved it.
Did you specifically set out to serve the Sudanese community? Back then I didn’t even know there were Sudanese immigrants in Omaha. For the first two or three years, the troop was more mixed, racially. But for the past five years, it’s been-—other than my kids—strictly Sudanese.
What difficulties do your Scouts face at home? All of the challenges living in the projects can present: single-parent households, not enough money, loud neighbors, gangs, drugs—all that bad stuff. Some Scouts actually take care of irresponsible parents. Others come from two-parent households where they are genuinely loved and looked after.
How were you able to afford to provide a Scouting program? The Mid-America Council provided scholarships for these kids to go to Camp Cedars. For outings, we raise money from folks in my church (West Hills Presbyterian Church, Troop 33’s chartered organization). The council donated uniforms. Given the situation the kids were in, we didn’t ask for money from them.
Your first week at summer camp in 2000 was less than ideal. Talk about it. It was rough. Several of the kids had to be sent home; they just refused to be a part of the program. We started with 42 boys, and we had 27 make it the whole week. But there was really a change on Tuesday or Wednesday. We really started to organize as an honest-to-goodness Scout troop. We elected patrol leaders, a senior patrol leader, and an assistant senior patrol leader. The young men learned the Scout Oath and Law, earned merit badges, and made real strides toward earning their Tenderfoot and Second Class ranks.
What other challenges have you faced? One of the big struggles early on was transportation. How do you get these kids picked up and delivered to meetings and campouts? There were a couple of guys from my church who pitched in and helped with driving.
Have you sometimes longed for a situation where parents were more involved? At a camporee one year, I was lamenting to another Scouter that I didn’t have any adult help. He said he had all kinds of adult help but that every Scout he had at the camporee had been dragged there by the ear and would have rather been home playing video games. He was envious of the enthusiasm my kids were showing.
Why do you think you’ve been successful? Partnering with somebody who is already working in the community was a key to making this thing work. Also, some of the cross-cultural experiences that I’d had on short-term mission trips helped sensitize me to working across cultures. Given the challenges I faced, I don’t think I could have made this journey without the One who called me to this trail.
How did you manage to start Troop 33 while also growing a business? I was careful about scheduling work time. Even if the work wasn’t done, I had to set limits. In Scouting, I haven’t gone back and done Wood Badge staff. I’ve had a single focus on being a Scoutmaster and working with these Scouts.
What has kept you going? This has very much been a part of my faith journey. As a Christian, I was challenged to take my skills as a Scout leader and apply them in a cross-cultural manner. I had prayed through the decision to the point where I was convinced that this was what God wanted me to do. That’s not to say I don’t go knock on His door and say, “What were you thinking?”
What has most surprised you about your time as Scoutmaster? When I embarked on this path, I had no idea that the young men in my troop would grow up to become my friends. The adult-to-adult friendships I have now are pretty remarkable.
What has it been like to watch your former Scouts create Aqua-Africa? Buey Tut and Buay Wiyual give Scouting the credit for developing in them the leadership skills and “can do” attitudes they are using to build Aqua-Africa. This is not just any business. Who knows how many children’s lives will be saved because of their efforts? I don’t actually have words to describe how proud I am of these young men or how grateful I am to have had the privilege of walking the trail with them.
What message do you have for other Scouters? There are great kids in rough circumstances in every metropolitan inner city. Does Scouting have anything to offer these kids? Yes. My experience says that basic Scouting principles and teaching techniques are as effective in the inner city as they are anywhere else. The Scout Oath and Scout Law are desperately needed in our inner cities. Step out and take Scouting to your inner city. Great kids are there, waiting for you.
FACT SHEET: DR. LYN GRAVES
Years as a Scout Leader: 12
Current City: Omaha, Neb.
Current Position: Scoutmaster, Troop 33
Day Job: Optometrist and co-owner of a company that provides eye care at nursing homes in 10 states
Favorite Camp: Camp Cedars, Fremont, Neb. I’ve climbed Pikes Peak, but I tell my friends Camp Cedars has the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed. My mountaintop experiences at Camp Cedars have come from getting to spend time with the Scouts of Troop 33.
Proudest Moments in Scouting: The little victories that come from watching young men make good choices; also getting to walk the trails of Scouting with my own two sons and my dad—all four of us Eagle Scouts.
READ MORE INTERVIEWS WITH INSPIRING SCOUTERS AT SCOUTINGMAGAZINE.ORG/WIL.