Archive for February, 2010

Happy 100th BSA from the Village of Harlem

February 13, 2010

On February 8th, the Boy Scouts of America celebrated their 100th birthday.  With the help of Hellura Lyle of Docwatchers and the Maysles Cinema we had our own party in Harlem and free screening of “759: Boy Scouts of Harlem” in the community where it was made.

We were lucky to have Anthony Thomas, the two millionth Eagle Scout and his parents with us–all the way from their home in Minnesota.  Photographed below, from left to right, is: filmmaker Justin Szlasa, Assistant Scoutmaster Ann Dozier, Scoutmaster Okpoti Sowah, Eagle Scout Anthony Thomas, Colin Byers, Aubrey Byers and filmmaker Jake Boritt.

We were also lucky to have the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Charlie Rangel, join us for the film.  He has been serving the Harlem community for about as long as Mr. Sowah and before that he served our country in Korea where he was awarded a Purple Heart.  After the screening Charlie said of Troop 759: “This is just one of the diamonds that we polish to help our kids learn discipline and how to respect each other and to get along.”  We couldn’t agree with you more Mr. Rangel!  Thank you for your support.


NY Post opinion piece for 100th Anniversary

February 8, 2010

Here is a piece I wrote for the New York Post that was published earlier today.

The full text is below:

Today is the 100th birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. But the cen tennial will likely pass with little fan fare in New York City, where of one of America’s largest youth organizations has become practically invisible — a loss, especially, to the city’s most needy youth.

You can still find some Boy Scouts in New York, but the number has dwindled; last year, Manhattan had fewer than 500 registered Boy Scouts with fewer than 4,500 citywide.

Forgotten are scouting’s deep roots in New York. In 1910, the organization set up its first national headquarters at 200 Fifth Ave., just off Madison Park in the building later known as the Toy Center. That year, Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller lauded Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement, at a dinner held in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Back then, the scouts had friends in high places here. In 1927, Franklin Roosevelt, then head of the New York City Boy Scout Foundation, arranged a deal to buy 11,000 acres of land along the Delaware that would become Ten Mile River Scout Camp — one of the largest in the world.

In 1952, Eleanor Roosevelt presented an award to the 250,000th Scout to attend Ten Mile River. In the early ’60s, more than 12,000 New York scouts camped there each summer.

Last summer, fewer than 1,400 city scouts camped at Ten Mile River. The venerable Camp Pouch on Staten Island is up for sale. And the national headquarters left Fifth Avenue long ago — the organization is now run from an office park in Texas.

A legal victory for the national group was the latest setback for New York City scouts. In spring 2000, Boy Scouts won the right to exclude gays from membership — a policy roughly equivalent to that of the US military.

New York institutions reacted by abandoning the Boys Scouts. City government barred them from meeting or recruiting in public schools. Politicians, celebrities and business leaders who had long championed scouting abandoned the program. Charitable donations — which mostly helped boys in poor neighborhoods — slowed to a trickle.

The decline doesn’t matter much to affluent kids; they have plenty of options. But for boys from lower-income families, scouting may be their only chance to camp in a tent, swim in a lake, hike up a mountain or learn to save a life.

This is certainly true for the scouts of Troop 759 in Harlem. Scoutmaster Okpoti Sowah, an immigrant from Ghana who came to New York to study at Columbia, has been a leader for more than 30 years in a neighborhood that needs male role models. His scouts have backpacked the deserts of Philmont, the wilds of Maine and the Adirondack high peaks.

Sowah pushes boys to succeed. Most of his troop members go to college; many achieve Eagle Scout.

If a boy has been in the scouts at least five years, there is a 91 percent chance he will finish high school. He is nearly twice as likely as a nonscout to earn a college degree and can expect to earn almost a third more.

Prominent ex-scouts abound in New York business and politics: Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Rep. Gary Ackerman, Wall Street great John Whitehead and entrepreneur Earl Graves are Eagle Scouts.

Mayor Bloomberg, a Distinguished Eagle Scout, writes in his biography that “Boy Scout Summer Camp was the highlight of the year . . . It was where I learned to be self sufficient, and simultaneously, to live and work with others.”

In other words, scouting produces success. It’s a tremendous shame that New York has allowed the culture wars to deny that hope to its children.

Justin Szlasa is an Eagle Scout and pro ducer of the documentary “759: Boy Scouts of Harlem.”

A Letter from Lancaster

February 3, 2010

Good Morning

The film Boy Scouts of Harlem demonstrates the incredible power of the Boy Scout program to build self-esteem and self reliance in boys. It is an incredibly powerful statement. It also shows the power that Scouting has to compensate for the absence of male role models and how Scouting can have a powerful presence especially in challenging circumstances.

As a Scout and Scouter over the last 56 years I have spent a fair amount of my life tramping around Boy Scout Camps across the United States. Justin and Jake have done an incredible job of communicating a powerful real-life image of the Boy Scout Camp experience. They make it come to life as it really is. They capture the fun, the camaraderie, the challenge and the achievement that are all essential elements of Scouting and the outdoors. This film demonstrates how the three elements of the Boy Scout program, skills, values and leadership, are effectively employed in the process of turning boys into productive and responsible Citizens.

This is must see film particularly in these challenging times. It communicates the power and the hope we need to get America back on track. As I write this Scouting has recently honored the two millionth Eagle Scout, there are 4.6 active Boy Scouts in America and 22.8 million worldwide. More than a million and a half of those Eagles are still alive today. Scouting has made a huge contribution to America and the world and is committed to doing so today and into the future.

Yours in Scouting and Service

Jim Bednarski
Assistant Scoutmaster Troop 99, Lancaster, PA
Author; Scouting for Boys, Centennial Edition