AJ with his prototype cat beds (Photo by Wendi Kromash)

AJ Oda has been involved with scouting through the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) since he was in kindergarten. Currently he is a senior at ETHS, on the cusp of turning 18, a member of Scout Troop 924 and completing his application to earn the designation of Eagle Scout, the BSA’s highest achievement.

Only a fraction of scouts, fluctuating between 4% and 8%, ever attain the rank of Eagle Scout. It requires the scout to be an active participant in troop activities, to keep track of the leadership roles they take on and the dates each merit badge is completed, and to demonstrate that the scout lives life according to the Scout Oath and Law. The scout must complete all the work for the application before turning 18, which for AJ is only three weeks away.

This past November, AJ had already completed the 21 required merit badges. He had asked for and received letters of recommendation from adults who know him well, and was working on his required essay, the “Eagle Scout Statement of Ambitions and Life Purpose.”

He still needed a service project, the capstone of a scout’s experience in scouting that must follow specific guidelines. Referred to as requirement 5, the official language reads, “While a Life Scout, plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.” The project idea also needs three levels of approval before the scout can begin.

AJ wasn’t sure about what kind of project to select. He met with his troop and scout advisor to seek out their advice and ideas. Someone suggested contacting the Evanston Animal Shelter (EAS) to see if they needed any projects completed. AJ liked that idea and reached out to Vicky Pasenko, Executive Director of EAS. Pasenko has worked with hundreds of volunteers over the years and was eager to meet with AJ. She mentioned to him how the shelter and all its feline inhabitants could use new cat beds.

That was precisely the suggestion AJ needed. Pasenko showed AJ an example of a cat bed that the cats like, and which the shelter employees find easy to stack and clean. He got to work developing a prototype, taking scrupulous notes and making detailed drawings.

He needed to document his project for his Eagle Scout application, but also so he could explain it to other people, including other scouts who would help him build the beds and hardware store managers he approached for donations. He made a list of the tools and materials he needed and visited local businesses, showing them his diagram and seeking donations or discounts to help him accrue the materials he needed. He was gratified with the generosity of Ace Hardware on Davis Street, Menard’s, Evanston Home Depot and True Value.

Charlie checks out the new cat beds. (Photo provided by Evanston Animal Shelter)

As further demonstration of his leadership skills, AJ contacted his friends in and out of scouting to see if anyone would be interested helping him assemble the cat beds. He’s a persuasive young man with dedicated friends – 20 volunteers showed up to help. Working out of a space at his father’s business in Skokie, they managed to complete the entire project in about three hours. Each group followed the diagram AJ had drawn, which included a color-coded diagram to help differentiate the pieces of similarly looking PVC pipes.

On Feb. 27, AJ stopped by the shelter to drop off 12 cat beds and two cat “trees,” which are several cat beds stacked together for a more challenging climb. One of the photos shown here is of a shelter cat, Charlie, readying himself to climb one of the cat trees. The synthetic material secured between the PVC pipes is washable, waterproof and very strong. AJ’s own cat, Tyler, tested every iteration and now “owns” the prototype shown in the photo with AJ.

AJ also mentioned that he researched if cats react to color, since the synthetic fabric used is a saffron yellowish color. He did not find any guidance on cats and color preferences, and his choice has not affected the usage of the beds or their popularity at the shelter. From all reports, the cats seem to be very happy.

Vicky was ecstatic with AJ’s contribution.

“At the Evanston Animal Shelter, we are always excited to have the opportunity to work with young people and we are continually amazed by their enthusiasm and level of support. AJ was great to work with. I offered him an idea and he just ran with it. If there are other kids out there looking for service projects like this one, they can contact the shelter via email at easadoptions@gmail.com,” she offered.

AJ’s troop advisor, Jim Wooldridge, was equally impressed. Wooldridge is a member of the Parent Troop 924 Committee and said he was available “to give advice and encouragement, answer questions,” especially for those attempting to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout.

Wooldridge described the process as “daunting,” which is why so few succeed. When Wooldridge met with AJ this past November, he wasn’t convinced AJ had enough time to complete the project before his 18th birthday. Most Eagle projects take six months to a year to complete, and with good reason.

As Wooldridge explained, “An Eagle project is about positioning yourself as a leader within the community to bring awareness to the project, train a group of volunteers, secure fundraising and to document all aspects of the project from planning through assessment.”

The tight timeframe proved to be a non-issue for AJ. Wooldridge observed, “We were incredibly impressed by AJ as he managed not only to complete the project within the limited timeframe, but did so with such hard work and attention to detail. He really shined as a leader, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.” 

In addition to scouting and attending ETHS, AJ also works about 20 hours a week at Koi Fine Asian Cuisine and Lounge, so he’s good at time management. He still has a few hurdles to complete before achieving Eagle rank, but Wooldridge is confident AJ is up to the task.

AJ plans to take a gap year after graduating this May. Scouting is open to both girls and boys. Young people in Evanston interested in learning more can reach out to Troop 924’s Scoutmaster, Marcello Bondurant, at scoutmaster@troop924.org.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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