By all accounts, 16-year old Alek Sanchez could have been just another young Latino who with no father in the home statistics show was at greater risk of getting involved with drugs, gangs or dropping out of school.
But Alek and his single mother, Gloria Gonzalez, credit his involvement in the Montebello Boy Scouts for leading him down a different path, which after 8 years of hard work will result in the teenager being presented Saturday with the highly coveted Eagle Scout Award during a ceremony at the Montebello Scout House at the Quiet Cannon.
Earning scouting’s highest advancement ranking is a big honor for the Alhambra resident. Only seven percent of all scouts reached the rank of Eagle Scout in 2012, placing Alek in the company of some very famous high achievers, like Astronaut Neil Armstrong, Filmmaker Steven Spielberg and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In it’s 75-year history, only 85 members of Montebello Boy Scout Troop 330 have earned the ranking.
Getting to this point was “a challenge,” said Alek who admits he at times felt like quitting because the time commitment often kept him from taking part in activities at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles where he is a junior.
But “I had put so much time and effort, it wouldn’t [have] been fair to me, or those who helped me, to stop,” he said. “It became bigger than me.”
Alek’s mother is very proud of her son’s accomplishment and finds it hard not to tear up when she speaks of how challenging it was for him to keep going. “There were times when he wanted to give up, but I’m happy that he continued because kids his age can fall into the wrong crowds,” Gonzalez said. Seeing her tears, Alek hugs his mother in a kind of acknowledgement that they were in it together.
Troop 330 Scoutmaster Cindy Farber told EGP many scouts hit bumps along the road and some are influenced by others to quit. But for the most part, she says, scouts stick around because of the support they receive from one another and the Troop’s male leaders who are positive male role models” for the boys, she said.
Alek’s mother says it is a well-known fact that being an Eagle Scout can give a teenager “an edge” when it comes to getting into college and getting a job. It is something that will forever be on his resume, giving him the upper hand, she said.
It takes years to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Alek had to earn 21 merit badges, be part of a service unit, produce a community service project and earn numerous recommendations from people to including his Eagle Scout application, which also included an essay detailing his personal aspirations.
Alek, who will turn 17 next month, did more than what was expected, earning 24 badges and joining Venture Crew, a troop dedicated to preparing youth for adulthood.
He has devoted thousands of hours throughout his Cub Scout and Boy Scout career volunteering at events, fundraising for charity and going on wildlife trips with his troop.
“When you put a kid in that type of environment they learn about responsibility,” says Alek, referring to the merit badges young scouts have to earn in areas such as personal management, citizenship, personal fitness, first aid and camping.
“At first you’re following someone, but then you become a leader,” he explains.
Many high school teenagers see the Boy Scouts as something for “little kids” and involving “selling cookies,” but there’s far more to the uniform that most people see, Alek told EGP.
“I don’t like to think of the Boy Scouts as an elementary school thing because it’s not,” he said. “We do a lot of things that require us to be older,” he said.
Those sets of skills include shotgun range, rock climbing, canoeing, white water rafting and backpacking in the snow, physically and emotionally challenging tasks for a boy who lives in a densely urban area and does not have a father around to shepherd him through the activities.
“When you enroll your child [in Boy Scouts] they’re going to be getting a set of skills and going to be taught respect, responsibility, independence and the basic things you need to grow up and succeed later on so you don’t have to rely on other people,” Alek explained.
Farber told EGP that all the merit activities are intended to help the scouts figure out what they want to do in life.
“Being an Eagle Scout isn’t just earning the merit badges, it is [about] who you are and who you become,” Farber said. “Parents have to step back and allow them to grow on their own.”
Alek says he owes a lot to his Montebello Troop, which he says helped him gain those important life skills. Displaying a “packed scheduled” filled with meetings, fundraisers, hikes and trips, Gonzalez says the experience has taken “a lot of hours and a lot of sacrificing” on both their parts, including hundreds of hours of volunteer work and giving up free time during the weekend or afterschool to attend meetings, fundraise or other activities.
But despite having to multi-task the challenges of the Boy Scouts and high school, Alek says he has found his passion along the way.
First aid, his favorite merit badge, helped him realize he was interested in the medical field. Applying what he learned during hikes with friends, springing into action when someone touched a poisonous plant, scraped a knee or became dehydrated, are real life examples of how he has been able to use what he has learned, and sparking an interest in the medical field as well as in the theater.
Alek has been hooked on scouting since first being introduced to it as a third grader. He told EGP he participated in every event he could, making longtime friends a long the way.
The scouts was also a way for Alek to move past having an absent father, especially with some of the outdoor stuff that Gonzalez may have otherwise not been able to connect with her son.
“Everyone needs a break from mom,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem driving him anywhere and taking him everywhere he had to be because this is something that is going to follow him for the rest of his life.”
Alek told EGP he plans to continue attending scouting meetings despite it no longer being required, and hopes to continue giving back to his troop and helping fellow scouts obtain their merit badges and follow in his footsteps to reach scouting’s highest rank.
“The final stretch is the hardest,” said the teen who seems more mature than his 16 years of age. “There are people who get to the ranking just before [eagle] and stop, but this [medal] was for me, it was the right thing to do.”