“A Scout is helpful.”
This is the third of twelve points in the Boy Scouts of America’s Scout Law, which serves as a list of character standards for their youth. In this spirit the Scouts participate in an annual “Trash the Trash Day” every May, when youth all over the United States assemble to clean up their communities.
When the COVID-19 pandemic rendered such large gatherings unadvisable, two local Scouts devised a creative way to continue their tradition of service: the 2020 Kayak Cleanup.
Kip Novas, 16, and Brendan Young, 14, participate in a traditional Scouting unit with Troop 442 in Spring Hill as well as the Sea Scouting program with Ship 27 in Hernando Beach. Having hosted coastal cleanups with their Ship and the Florida Sea Grant College Program in the past, the boys saw an opportunity to host a safe, socially distant event by spreading participants across a fleet of small boats.
“Our Florida coastline supports over 600,000 jobs, with countless marine animals and plants’ very survival depending on pollution-free coasts, ” Young said. “With COVID-19 it was a big challenge to plan it, but by using kayaks we solved a big part of the problem.”
By separating the youth across multiple shifts and dividing each shift into two teams, Novas and Young ensured that Scouts would travel in pods of under 10 youth, and masks would be required while ashore and around one another. According to Young, youth-driven leadership was critical to the operation.
“The youth leaders for each team were responsible for making sure the buddy teams and their groups maintained a safe distance while conducting the cleanup,” Young said.
The Florida Sea Grant program voiced full support to the youth and their cleanup, even though their office remained closed through June 1. To aid in the Sea Grant’s research efforts, Young and Novas agreed to keep a tally of the different forms of waste they encountered, from bottles to clothing.
With a plan in place and blessed, the boys set a date for May 31 and extended invitations to local units in Scouting’s Withlacoochee district as well as to community partners.
Two dozen Scouts from Hernando, Citrus and Pasco Counties committed to the cleanup, with boys and girls from Ship 27, Troop 442, Girls Troop 8681 and the Order of the Arrow– Scouting’s honor society–making up the bulk of participants. Additionally, four trained lifeguards volunteered their time along with two trained paramedics in support. Hernando Fire Rescue’s recently retired assistant fire chief, Frank DeFrancesco, cruised out on his personal skiff, and additional masks were supplied by artisan Sandi Hayes and her workshop, Twigg Hollow.
“In a single word, it was inspiring,” Mark Rothenburg, Marion County firefighter and adult leader to Novas and Young, said. “To see the youth of our local Scouting units come together with our community to plan and accomplish an event is simply inspiring.”
The first shift made up of youth from Troop 442 and Ship 27 gathered bright and early at their launch point in Hernando Beach on Sunday. Spread out across Young’s backyard, they assembled for a safety briefing given by Novas, a certified lifeguard himself.
“Be safe out there,” Novas told youth through his mask. “Once you’re at your landing point on Coon Key, masks and shoes have to stay on.”
Under the supervision of adult leaders on two powerboats, one, then two kayak fleets traversed the channel to reach Coon Key. Along their route they passed schools of cownose rays splashing on the surface, their mating season well underway.
“We were even lucky enough to have dolphins swim with us as we were kayaking,” Young said. “It brought me together with nature and made me proud of the work being accomplished.”
Coon Key sees substantial waste pile up each year, some of it swept in with the tide and some left by careless boaters. As they landed on shore and began scouring the bank, the Scouts could see and hear a flotilla of weekend partiers moored farther down the coast.
The Scouts bagged everything from rusted signs to fishing nets to aluminum cans. The Sea Scouts were even able to repurpose some of the would-be trash, including a discarded life jacket and salvaged boat parts. After their two-hour shift concluded at noon, the first fleets ferried their haul back over the waterway, loading the larger garbage onto the powerboats.
Only fifteen minutes after the first shift dispersed, a fresh crew arrived. The girls of Troop 8681 in Spring Hill made up a majority of the second shift, well known for their signature “Pink Ladies” t-shirts. Founded in 2019, they are one of the youngest troops in the district with about a dozen members. For some of them, it was their first time kayaking in saltwater.
“I think it was an incredible experience,” Kelly Sobtzak, Scoutmaster of Troop 8681, said. “I loved being able to see the Scouts work together and start a bond with the other units. We’re very grateful we were included in this adventure, and we’re looking forward to the next one.”
Female Scout troops are among the fastest growing in the Withlacoochee District, with four popping up in Hernando and Citrus Counties in the past year. Lindsey Falkowski, 17, a Scout with 8681, said the program has given her opportunities like this to meet new people and conquer her fears.
“It was probably one of my best Scouting adventures,” Falkowski said.
By 2:30 p.m. the beach was cleaner than it had been in months, and it was time for the Scouts to return home. On arriving back at the docks, the youth gathered their collective “loot” in several commercial garbage bags, though several large pieces of flotsam too large for the bags had to be carried away separately.
“Everyone worked so hard, and we were able to remove a significant amount of trash from our coastline,” Young said.
As the Scouts pulled the last of the boats from the canal, Novas and Young encouraged the youth to come back and sail with them in the future as members of Ship 27 as well as their respective troops. The boys said they thought everyone had a great time, and they expect to see their faces again soon, perhaps without masks when circumstances permit.
“During these unprecedented times, Scouting has looked a bit different over the past few weeks,” the Greater Tampa Bay Area Council’s field director, Sharrod McCree, said. “While we are not able to gather for a campout in the woods or fellowship over the finest of Dutch oven cuisines, our core values remain the same. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, our Scouts continue to live the mission and remember the oath and law.”
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