By Cheryl Conway
After months of planning, fundraising and recruiting helpers, 18-year old Damon Johnson has made several improvements at Saint Jude Parish in Budd Lake to achieve Boy Scouting’s highest rank, that of Eagle Scout.
For his Eagle Scout service project, Johnson titled his work Beautification of St. Jude’s Prayer Garden. With the help of his scouting troop- Boy Scout Troop 249 in Mt. Olive, as well as troop leaders, friends and his parents, Johnson improved the church by power-washing and painting walls; placing a pedal stool and statue of St. Francis in the church’s prayer garden; and building a bridge in the prayer garden for safer access.
Johnson, a recent graduate of Mt. Olive High School, began his project in September 2017, and after seven months completed all tasks. He reached his goal of Eagle on April 1 and received his Eagle Scout badge during a court of honor ceremony on June 16 at 1 p.m. at the Mt. Olive Senior Center. With about 40 people made up of friends, family and other Scouts, Johnson received a citation, certificate and a medal from Congressman Leonard Lance.
To earn the award, a Scout must be active with and assume a position of leadership in a troop, earn a minimum of 21 merit badges and complete a service project that benefits the community.
The idea to make improvements and beautify St. Jude’s grew out of Johnson’s appreciation and desire to give back.
“They donate their space to us for our meetings,” says Johnson, and have done so for many years. St. Jude’s church is the troop’s charter organization. “In return for all the space they’ve given us,” Johnson wanted to give something back to say ‘thank-you.’
“Without St. Jude’s we would have had no place to meet or store our stuff for this past decade,” says Johnson. “That’s what holds this troop together.”
As the organizer of the project, Johnson says “I did more management, monitoring, meeting dates and material gathering.
“Everyone did the work,” he emphasizes. “I did work also,” but took on “more of a project manager role.”
Before their work began, Johnson and his troop had to raise some money to cover the cost of their allotted plans.
“We fundraised back in October to cover the project,” he says.
On October 16, 2017, they held a fundraiser- Bagging For Charity- at the Shoprite in Chester.
“We helped bag for customers and they would tip us,” he says. For six hours of bagging groceries, 14 volunteers helped raise $753. Johnson says he also received donations.
All County Window donated cleaning and power washing services of the two exterior walls at the rear of the church before Johnson and his helpers could paint the 1,000 sq. foot area.
“The paint was chipping, a little pinkish, pretty ugly and not maintained,” says Johnson, “so we cleaned it and repainted it a nice tan.”
Other contributions came from Lowes which “donated a lot of materials at cost,” says Johnson, and RP Smith & Son in Succasunna which donated “a ton of materials for free.”
The next part of the project entailed placing a pedal stool, 3 ft. by 2 ft., in the egg rock garden bed behind the garden. A statue of St. Francis that was recently donated to the Rosary Society in memory of Michelena Lo Presti was placed on top of the pedal stool.
The ideas for the project came from Johnson and church leaders. Johnson had approached Father Antonio Gaviria with his idea to make improvements on the church property for his Eagle Scout project. Gaviria then pointed Johnson to the church’s garden club for suggestions, explains Christine Priest of Budd Lake, president of the St. Jude’s Garden Club.
Priest agreed with Damon’s first vision to repaint the two walls of the parish center.
“It had been 20 years since it was repainted,” says Priest, “it needed to be repainted. Then Johnson said to me, ‘Is there anything else I can do?’ That’s a dangerous question to ask a gardener,” she laughs.
That’s when they come up with the idea for a raised walkway over the conduit to provide better access to the serenity garden.
“People can now safely access the serenity garden,” says Priest. “It was dangerous; he had to move the fence and the gate.” The work by the Scouts has provided both a “visual improvement and safety improvement” at the church garden, she says.
As far as the Statue of St. Francis sitting on top of a pedal stool, Priest says “it’s really nice. He did a wonderful job.” Now we’ll have a focal point for when we have the Blessing of the Animals, when church members bring their pets to receive a blessing. St. Francis is the patron of the animals, Priest notes.
“Now we have a statue as a focal point,” says Priest. “It rounded out the prayer garden.”
In regards to Johnson’s efforts, she says “He did a fine job. It was not an easy job; it was complex; he stuck with it.”
As a resident of Budd Lake since 1977, Priest has also been involved in the Scouts since her three sons were involved years ago in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts Troop 249, just like Johnson.
Another Eagle Scout project was completed at the church more than six years ago when Scouts built benches and the serenity garden that Johnson just built the walkway too, says Priest.
“I’m a big proponent of Scouting,” says Priest, adding that her grandkids are now Scouts. “I was a member of this troop years ago. I was a Den leader and sat on the committee. I’m glad it continues,” she says, especially with “so many distractions between sports and technology.”
Priest applauds the life skills Scouts gain from participating such as leadership, cooperation, team building, social skills. Life, “it’s not an easy path.”
Involved for the past seven years, Johnson has been a Boy Scout since he was 11 years old.
It “opens you up to a lot of new experiences,” says Johnson. “It helped me push myself to other limits that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.” He points to his first camping experience and not being ready to handle the cold weather.
“It was freezing,” says Johnson, about his trip to the Pine Barrens when he was 12 and it was 20 degrees. “You’re stuck in the woods. It builds your character and makes you stronger in general.
As a Boy Scout, Johnson says he enjoyed the one-week summer camp the most as well as his latest service project beautifying the church.
“It gave me so much freedom to do and build on myself while enjoying it over a long period of time,” says Johnson.
When it comes to working on projects and using his hands and skill, Johnson is no stranger.
He helped other Scouts with their Eagle Scout projects when he was younger. He recalls one six years ago when he helped his fellow Scout build an access ramp at a church to accommodate those in wheelchairs.
“The engineering was very complex and I enjoyed getting my hands in there,” says Johnson.
As a member of the MATE Club Loggerhead ROV at Mt. Olive High School, Johnson has been involved as a design engineer with this newly formed robotics team established just two years ago. His role has been more a leadership type focusing on the technical aspect of the project.
“We don’t just design a robot, we design a submarine,” explains Johnson. The team’s task has been to demonstrate its submarine in a 12 inch deep pool and market the product. The team is judged not only on its product performance in the pool but also by its marketing skills, says Johnson.
Johnson and three other seniors on the team recently missed their high school graduation from MOHS on Friday, June 22, to compete in an international MATE underwater robotics competition June 21-23 at Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in King County, Wash. MOHS was one of 65 teams from 19 countries attending.
“We had to qualify based on last performance at Villanova,” says Johnson, where “we earned six awards.”
Loggerhead ROV is made up of 18 students from MOHS; 12 had planned to attend the international event. Before getting involved in MATE, Johnson was involved in MOHS robotics MORT teams since ninth grade.
At the time of this interview, Johnson was not only preparing for his trip but was also moving from his Flanders home where he grew up. He and his parents were moving to Morristown and Johnson plans to attend Rutgers University in New Brunswick for electrical or mechanical engineering.
As he looks ahead to the next chapter in his life, he reflects on his accomplishments and plans to stay connected.
“I’m really pleased,” he says, in regards to the completed work he managed at the church. “It’s awesome to stand back and look at freshly painted walls, next to a statue and a bridge that covers the pipes. I feel a lot of pride when I look at the landscape.”
As far as his time with the Scouts, he says “I’m going to try to stay involved; will make visits as much as I can and get involved later in life.”