This Scouter Leads a Troop of Mostly Refugee Children

Saborn Va

Years as a Scout Volunteer: 4 years

Current City: Salt Lake City, Utah

Current Position: Former Scoutmaster, Troop 7976

Day Job: Senior Digital Marketing Strategist at Zions Bancorporation

Most Satisfying Moment in Scouting: When one of his Scouts, now a pre-med major at the University of Utah, said Scouting made him who he is. “He comes up and says, ‘Man, thanks for the influence you had on me. I’m in the situation I’m in because of what you’ve done for me.’”

Favorite Camp and Why: Camp Loll, Ashton, Wyo. “It’s not about the area. It’s not about the program. It’s because the staff members are such loving and good people.”

After escaping the killing fields of Cambodia in the late 1970s, Saborn (he goes by “Sam”) Va and his family immigrated to the United States. He joined a Scout troop at his church in Lowell, Mass., but wasn’t able to continue in Scouting when his family moved to California. Although he barely made it to the Tenderfoot rank, he didn’t forget the camping trips, the Klondike derbies and — most important — the dedicated Scoutmaster who went out of his way to make sure the Scouts had transportation to the weekly meetings.

As an adult, Va moved to Utah and soon got involved in his church’s Varsity Scout program (a now-discontinued BSA program). As Varsity coach, he dedicated much of his time to driving around Salt Lake City to pitch the Scouting program to refugee children.

In 2019, Va shifted gears and became Scoutmaster of a new girls’ troop, Troop 7976, which serves more than 40 girls, mostly immigrants, in the Salt Lake City area. This summer, the 40-member troop traveled 300 miles north to Camp Loll, where the girls hiked, swam, climbed, rappelled, built shelters and much more. It was just their second campout.

What countries of origin are represented in the troop? The majority of our girls are from Myanmar, but we also have a good number from Nepal. Then we have one from Afghanistan, another from Pakistan and another from Peru — just various countries.

Does such a mix of backgrounds create challenges? Whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, they’re still kids. They’re not driven by the color of their skin; they’re just driven by the fact that they want to do this. If you’re motivated by love and a desire to make a difference, you see beyond all those things and just treat them like kids.

What about working with boys vs. girls? Our boys are one of the closest groups I’ve ever met. With the girls, the challenge has been little cliques that happen within the ethnic groups. But taking them on a weeklong campout, where they’re seeing each other 24/7 and being forced to work together, really breaks down those barriers.

How do you work with parents who aren’t familiar with Scouting? I do a lot of personal visits to these homes to keep them up to date on what’s happening. I find any excuse to go into their home, like if I need an activity consent form signed. I try to bring women leaders with me as well. It also helps that I look Asian and grew up in very similar circumstances.

Are the parents supportive? They’re not supportive in the sense of giving rides and bringing the kids to wherever we’re going, because a lot of them are working 10-hour shifts, if not two jobs, and they just don’t have the time to get really involved. I’ve been blessed with opportunities and a position at work where I can actually get involved.

You’ve quickly grown to 40-plus members. How? Many of these girls are related to the guys in our (boys) troop — sisters or cousins — so they’ve seen what we’ve been doing over the years. I do a lot of posting on Facebook, and their family members and friends see the adventures our girls are having. I think recruiting has been really easy just because of the power of social media.

Why did you go so far afield for your first big outing? I used to coach women’s volleyball in Hawaii. At the beginning of the season, the head coach would always take the team on these away trips for two weeks instead of playing at home where we had the support of our fans. He said, “We go on away trips not to win games; we go on away trips to build the team.” Our Camp Loll trip built this team.

Did you have any other breakthroughs on the trip? Almost every single one of these girls was terrified of the dark because the culture they come from believes in ghosts. One of the merit badges they worked on was Wilderness Survival, which required them to build a shelter and sleep in it. And they did that successfully.

The boys’ troop was also at camp. How was the interaction? It was great. For one entire week, I watched young men display kindness and compassion, young women learn how to serve and bond in sisterhood, and young people come together in a common cause of friendship, fun and lots of adventures. Oh, and the girls beat the boys in tug of war, which was really incredible.

Photos courtesy of Saborn Va.

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