Fire destroys troop’s building, not spirit

July 26, 2011 

Boy Scout Austin Gasbarra, 15, of Troop 413 in Arroyo Grande holds the troop’s new yellow ‘We Will Survive’ sign.

GAYLE CUDDY

Scoutmaster Chris Hagerty got the call at 5 a.m. on Sunday, May 1. Boy Scout Troop 413’s building on Cherry Avenue in Arroyo Grande had burned to the ground.

He rushed to the scene, where the remains of the building he had been involved with since 1982 smoldered. He had joined the troop as a Scout at age 11.

“It was hard,” he lamented. He sat there on the bench till noon that day, unable to leave. He put it out on email and posted on Facebook.

Many Scouts thought it was a joke. “It’s May 1st, not April 1st,” they said.

The building dates to 1932, when it was built by the Japanese Welfare Association by the Pacific Coast Railway, after the railroad was rerouted through Pismo Beach.

The scouts have been there since 1969. The inside walls were covered with ribbons and plaques dating to the 1940s, tents and stoves, five teepees with poles, and the troop flag — irreplaceable items. Insurance covered the cleanup only, not the gear.

We have received “overwhelming support” from the community, Hagerty said. Local state Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara and City Council members called to give condolences. People in construction, electricians, housewives and architects offered help.

Even an 85-year-old woman from Florida sent $10, and two inmates from the California Men’s Colony sent checks.

Some boys thought the troop was gone.

Hagerty decided, “I don’t get to sit around and do nothing.”

In June, they celebrated their survival. They missed no meetings or activities.

Hagerty gave a speech, “We will survive!” One of the moms, Linda Leonard, made a new flag with that motto. Scout T-shirts were made with the motto, which the boys wear proudly.

Mom Sandi Farrell said that her son, Thomas, 14, got very upset at first, but then wrote a poem about the tragedy, which was read at the first meeting after the fire.

“My son is watching the troop rebuild. Thomas knows that whatever tragedy that occurs in his life, he will survive it and carry on.”

After the father of the 16-year-old boy accused of starting the fire called Hagerty to apologize, Thomas told his mom, “That boy must have been really troubled. He should’ve been in Scouts.”

A week after the burning, Greg Steinberger, owner of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, called and organized a fundraiser for the troop, consisting of a giant 100-inch ice cream sandwich to be presented at the Arroyo Grande Centennial. The Scouts and parents sold tickets and sponsorships for the event, making about $12,000.

Steinberger said, “The tragedy of burning down the lodge of 90-year-old Troop 413 has led to several significant learning opportunities for the Scouts. I was able to see the energy, respectfulness and positive attitude of these young men. … Scouts that have changed their attitudes toward the kids who did the crime, the growth of their speaking at Rotary and other meetings … and what the parents have done to keep the scouting experiences alive for them.”

These are “wonderfully positive stories … that combine into a ‘phoenix from the ashes’ tale,” he added.

To help Scout Troop 413, contact Hagerty at 709-0966 or scoutmaster@troop413.com.

Gayle Cuddy and Cynthia Lambert write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.

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