Danville resident Apara Sai Jella’’s Eagle Scout project, which involved transforming the backyard space of Oakland’s Project Pride, a women’s residential substance abuse treatment center, won the National Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year. She was honored in Oakland City Hall on Friday, July 29, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

For the first time in its history, the Peralta District of the Boy Scouts of America, which serves as the 119-year-old national organization’s branch in Oakland and Emeryville, inducted a class of female Eagle Scouts, four of whom hail from Oakland. Also for the first time, a newly-minted female Eagle Scout from the East Bay has been awarded the national organization’s project of the year, which involved creating an oasis of serenity at an Oakland residential substance abuse treatment center for women. 

The young women are helping to break down gender barriers in the Boy Scouts of America, which first allowed girls to join in 2019 after changing its official name to Scouts BSA.

The Boy Scouts have been rocked by lawsuits related to sexual abuse and coverups, a widespread scandal that led the organization to seek bankruptcy protection in 2020. For many years, the organization has been trying to reform itself by instituting new protections for its members while allowing previously excluded groups to join. In addition to allowing girls, the Boy Scouts also lifted its ban on gay scouts in 2013, gay leaders in 2015, and transgender youth in 2017.

Young women have been allowed to seek the prestigious status of Eagle Scout for a little over three years. Earning the rank of Eagle Scout involves obtaining 21 or more merit badges, which are awarded upon mastering certain skills, crafts, sports, and sciences, creating and completing an Eagle project, writing several essays, and undergoing a national board of review. Notable Eagle Scouts include Bill Gates, Neil Armstrong, and Steven Spielberg.

The four young Oakland women who have earned the Eagle Scout rank are Olivia Chan, Taylor Lowe, Rowan Blacklock, and Cecilia Thomsak. 

The Scouts’ Peralta District Advancement Chair Nikki Maguire, a “fifty-something” who was in Girl Scouts in second grade through high school, explained the attraction for young women to join Boy Scouts. “There are more big adventures in Boy Scouts, like backpacking and high adventure,” she said.

Maguire said the title of Eagle Scout is about the only thing you can earn as a young person that sticks with you. You can be captain of a sports team or president of your class, she said, “but saying you’re an Eagle Scout still matters your whole life, and for girls to have that opportunity is a big deal.”

Dimond District resident Olivia Chan said two things stand out about her experience as Oakland’s first-ever female Eagle Scout. First, she had never been a girl scout before attempting Eagle, and second, the time frame in which she had to complete all of the requirements was tight. 

Chan said that many people questioned why she would want to join the Boy Scouts. “I wanted to do more outdoorsy things,” she said, “to get dirty, and challenge myself physically.” 

She had to complete 21 badges and a service project before her 18th birthday, giving her just two-and-a-half years. She realized she’d have to devote every single weekend to the pursuit, describing the process as “a mad dash.” And the COVID-19 pandemic’s many disruptions didn’t help.

One of her biggest challenges came when her choice to earn a badge in swimming was interrupted by pandemic pool closures. A hiking merit badge was her other option, but the task was “a doozy.” Between mid- February to her birthday on March 1, she was required to complete a five-mile hike, three 10-mile hikes, as well as 15 and 20 -mile hikes. On her final weekend, she hiked a total of 37 miles. She says her motivation was to “to prove I could do something daunting and scary—with both physical and mental challenges.”

“I’m a young woman of color,” she said, “and I wanted to show that when given the opportunity, we can accomplish so much.”

Although the pandemic closed some doors, Chan believes it opened others, including providing the inspiration for her Eagle project: building 25 wooden hand sanitizer stands to be given to local food distribution centers, homeless shelters, and three Oakland public libraries—Melrose, Rockridge, and Dimond.

It also inspired her to learn how to effectively use Zoom and video for both regular meetings, as well as for a real-time “how to” gathering to walk her 25-person team through the construction process, after they’d picked up the pieces of lumber at her house. She believes that the necessary social distancing taught her the value of resiliency. 

To fund her project, she created a “GoFundMe” page that surpassed its $300 goal.

Chan, a graduate of the Oakland School for the Arts, now attends UC Davis, with a double major in music and cognitive neuroscience.

Danville resident Apara Sai Jella’’s Eagle Scout project, which involved transforming the backyard space of Oakland’s Project Pride, a women’s residential substance abuse treatment center, won the National Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year

Apara Sai Jella was awarded for her Eagle Scout Project, a reimagining of Project Pride’s backyard in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I never even thought I had a chance,” said Jella upon winning.

Jella was a Girl Scout since middle school. Her family moved a lot, she said, and as a result she didn’t really feel connected to a particular troop. Her desire to explore life skills—making knots, fires, dealing with emergency situations—resonated when her mother told her that girls would be allowed to join the Boy Scouts. 

Her project consisted of two parts. In Project Pride’s children’s area, the team assembled and built a playground, installed rubber tiles for safety, drew a racetrack and hopscotch, and painted a lively mural. In the women’s area, they planted a garden and created a circular meditation zone.

Jella’s ambitious project came with an impressive price tag of $4000, which was quickly raised via the GoFundMe platform. The work was completed over two consecutive Saturdays in March of last year, with about 25 volunteers showing up each day.

Jella said that effective communication was the biggest challenge. Things went smoothly on sight with only one hiccup—concrete was discovered where the plans called for grass. Thankfully the concrete was in a thin layer that was easily broken up. 

Jella is quick to point out that the project would “absolutely” not have happened without the support of friends, family, and community. Her advice: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I wasn’t.”

Apara Sai Jella at her Eagle Scout award ceremony with her family. Credit: Amir Aziz

After the space was completed, Jella was moved by the love and gratitude expressed by Project Pride’s clients in letters they wrote her. 

“The backyard is such a serenity for my treatment and therapeutic for my recovery,” one person told her.

“Even if it is just a brief time or a short walk to the space it has brought an uplifting spirit to the women and I believe the staff as well,” another wrote.

Jella was recognized last Friday at Oakland City Hall with a mayoral proclamation. She said she will be attending college at Virginia Commonwealth University, majoring in pre-med with the goal of becoming a surgeon.

There’s a well-known saying in the scouting community: “Once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout,” and Jella insists that her scouting days are far from over. She’d like to be a counselor and a Scout Master. “I’ll continue with scouting my whole life,” she said, noting that for her, it’s all about the ethics, morals, working together as a team, and helping others.

For Chan, the decision to join the Boy Scouts and achieve the rank of Eagle Scout was definitely one she doesn’t regret. “It changed who I am; how I work with others. It helped me grow into a better person, and I can honestly say that it took blood, sweat, and tears to get there.”

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.