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Syracuse Scout troop offers answers to youth in difficult setting

 


Syracuse Scout troop offers answers to youth in difficult setting

Nov. 29, 2004

A UMNS Feature
By Jan Snider*

An aging chapel in a working-class neighborhood sits among cracked walkways, peeling paint and broken spirits.

Brown Memorial United Methodist Church will soon be the only Protestant church in the Near West Side community of Syracuse, N.Y. It’s in an area that has high unemployment, a burgeoning immigrant community and dilapidated dwellings. These problems cultivate high crime and little comfort for the Near Westside residents.

But sometimes the worst problems can have relatively simple solutions. For Brown Memorial, one of the solutions comes in the form of Boy Scout Troop 14.

The small troop is under the Boy Scouts of America’s "Scoutreach" umbrella. It was formed for disadvantaged youth.

The Rev. Elizabeth Morey has welcomed the troop to Brown Memorial for five years. "We’re faced with poverty, drugs and absentee landlords," she says. "A lot of these boys have no male role models."

To the church leadership, Scouting seems like the best solution. For now, though, it’s a solution on hold as the church seeks a new Scout leader. Troop 14 has been on hiatus since losing its leader earlier this fall.

The half-dozen faithful Scouts of Troop 14 are mostly Latino, and many can’t read past a first-grade level, if at all. Morey says that most kids in Near West Side drop out of school, but these boys are staying put.

She has seen one 14-year-old, in particular, come a long way. Eddie Crossman is learning-disabled, but Scouting has taught him skills such as landscaping, first aid and simply staying away from trouble.

"I’m glad I’m off the streets," explains Eddie. He plans to attain Scouting’s highest rank, Eagle, some day.

For Eddie and the other boys in his troop, Scouting offers an antidote to the salient problems of the Near West Side. Gang activity and drugs lure the kids into trouble, and it is almost a rite of passage for kids to be sent to the local detention center. Getting out of the neighborhood to avoid trouble isn’t easy, either. Public transportation is limited, and alternative activities are spread throughout the city.

Phil Prehn is the senior staff organizer for Syracuse United Neighbors, a volunteer organization that is targeting Near West Side for improvements.

He says the community is the city’s least-affluent neighborhood, "with about half living at or below the poverty level." Five years ago, it was listed as one of the five poorest areas in the nation with a predominantly white population. Today, however, Near West Side has become home for many Latino immigrants, particularly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Home ownership is not the norm, with about 70 percent of the properties being rental. If jobs are found and money is brought into the home, then those families usually leave the neighborhood, Prehn says.

Gangs often target the boys for recruitment, he says. "One reason these kids tend towards gangs and crime is lack of belonging. Boy Scouts could expose them to things that are happening outside the community."

That positive impact is one reason Morey is concerned about getting a new Scout leader quickly.

"Some of the boys attend church here and I’ve seen them, but others have just dropped out of sight," she says.

The former Scout leader retired after five years, and temporary replacements have found the challenges of working with a group that has reading and some behavioral problems too daunting.

The boys learn through demonstration. When preparing for a camping trip, for example, the former leader showed them how to make a list, then took them to the grocery store to shop for meals. "Most of the boys have no men in the home, and some of the homes aren’t ones you’d want to stay in," Morey says.

The Scout leader will most likely come from outside the community. Brown Memorial has 30 people in the pews on a good Sunday. The neighbors are faithful people, but church simply isn’t in their culture, Morey says. "Church is very literate and a lot of folks really struggle with those skills," she adds.

Parents are simply overwhelmed with the basics of living, and "volunteering is almost a luxury – one they can’t afford," the pastor says.

The idea of taking the boys outside the neighborhood to work with another troop has been discussed, but that approach has not worked in the past. Brown Memorial once had a Girl Scout troop and tried to preserve it by taking the girls across community lines to participate in another troop. "They were treated like pariahs, and I’m not doing that to these children," Morey says.

Brown Memorial is turning to the district superintendent to help. Morey says the requirements for the job are pretty basic.

"I’ll be happy when we find someone who fills the Boy Scout Law to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful … all those things," she says. And, with a group of eager boys just waiting to get back at it, Troop 14 promises to be the same.

*Snider is a freelance producer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

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