Scouts aid tornado-stricken city

Over the last weekend of spring break, DeKalb County Boy Scouts made history.

On March 28 and 29, more than 150 local Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Scout leaders from 15 Scouting units traveled to Washington, Ill. to help with tornado recovery. It may have been the first time so many different Scouting groups from the local district made a disaster relief trip together, Scout leader Hugh Bisco said.

On Nov. 17, a tornado with winds estimated at 190 mph traveled through Tazewell, Woodford, LaSalle and Livingston counties. It reached its maximum intensity in Washington, a city of about 15,000 people near Peoria. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado destroyed 633 homes, seven businesses, and seven apartment buildings and inflicted major damage on 280 homes, two businesses and a school in the city.

With the help of volunteers, the residents of Washington are rebuilding and restarting their lives.

“I grew up in central Illinois,” said Bisco, a Scout leader with both Troop 18 and Pack 141 in Sycamore. “I knew people who lost their homes. The day after the tornado happened, the Scouts wanted to go down and help. That’s what Scouts do – they help those in need.”

In December, three Boy Scout troops from DeKalb County traveled to Washington to help with the tornado relief. When they returned, the stories they told sparked an excitement in other Scouts, and leaders began planning a second trip. Both Sycamore and DeKalb public schools had spring break the same week, leading Scouts throughout the district to plan a trip together.

Sean Staats, 16, a Life Scout with Troop 13, went on both the December and March trips.

“It was sad the first time I went down, but this time, the mood was better,” he said. “People were starting to rebuild and there was a sign of hope.”

In Washington, some of the Scouts had their first glimpse of the destruction a tornado can cause. They saw a crumpled radio tower, rubble and litter scattered in fields, tarps covering holes in buildings, and sections of roofs missing from houses. In some cases, only a home’s foundation and a closet or bathroom remained.

“I never saw anything like it before, except on the news,” 10-year-old Max Wray of Troop 18 said. “In real life, it’s worse. On TV, you see just that one picture, that one area. When you’re there, the whole town is like that. Where the tornado was, you could see houses almost torn in half.”

The Boy Scouts arrived on Friday and spent the weekend in Washington. The Scouts, leaders, and members of their families were hosted by the Roanoke United Methodist Church in the nearby town of Roanoke, which provided them with dinner and a place to sleep. Trinity Lutheran Church of Roanoke gave the Scouts breakfast, and Bethany Community Church in Washington fed them lunch and provided trucks, trailers, and supplies to collect bags of debris and bring them to trash bins and dump piles.

Scouts picked up small debris, such as screws, bolts, drywall, glass, and insulation scattered on the ground. The younger boys cleaned the fronts of houses and yards, while older boys helped clean sidewalks, streets and a golf course.

“Usually that golf course is open all year round, but it’s been closed since the tornado,” said Mike Hudspeth, a Scout parent and the activities coordinator for Troop 18. “The farms are too debris-filled and muddy. The farmers cannot farm and will lose a whole year’s worth of income.”

One tornado victim was emotional as she greeted volunteers, Scouts recalled. The tornado blew out the windows and tore the roof off the single mother’s home, and she and her 3-year-old daughter have only recently moved back in. Drivers honked and waved at the Scouts as they passed, and residents often came out of their houses to thank the volunteers.

“The people there really needed and wanted our help,” said Gavin Gartman, a 13-year-old Tenderfoot from Troop 13. “An elderly lady with a blind husband hired somebody to clean her yard, but they did a really bad job. Since they didn’t do the best job, we helped her. Afterwards, she was so grateful, she even gave us a small donation.”

The Boy Scouts are already planning a follow-up trip. Though the next trip probably will not have the entire district traveling together, many of the Scouting units plan to return.

“I’m sure that a lot of the troops and packs will go down there again,” Bisco said. “After all, the Boy Scout slogan is, ‘Do a good turn daily.’ The fact that the entire district went down together says something about the people of DeKalb County. They’re giving people and they care about others.”

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