It’s a good thing Cleis Newell has always loved puzzles, because that’s just what this was.

Cleis (pronounced “Kleese”) was confidently leading a group of volunteers for her Eagle Scout service project at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky. The Scout from Troop 200 and her helpers were adding steps and a drainage ditch to a small incline where people kept slipping and falling.

The team started to dig the ditch when one of Cleis’ volunteers heard her shovel make an unexpected clink. They soon uncovered the source of the obstruction: Buried into the ground under the hill were dozens of bricks from an old hospital that used to occupy the site. 

“This ended up turning what we thought would be a one-hour step into a four-hour step,” Cleis says. “Luckily, I had some very diligent workers.” 

Conquering challenges is just part of the process for this Eagle Scout from the Lincoln Heritage Council.

Cleis took a break from her biochemistry studies at the University of South Carolina to share six things she learned while working on her Eagle project. 

Before: When it rained, this hill became slippery, and many park guests had fallen.

1. Pick a project that’s important to you.

Cleis knew from the beginning that she wanted to pursue a construction project because she loves puzzles and putting things together. And she knew the perfect place, too: E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park, where she spent her formative years hiking, swimming and geocaching. 

“Reaching Eagle Scout is a lot of work, but choosing something that you really care about or fits your personality can make it a lot more fun,” she says. “It should be fun!”

Cleis approached the park’s management to ask whether she could do a project there and, if so, how she might make the most impact.

They gave Cleis a couple of ideas, including installing steps near the Tom Sawyer Fitness Loop. The area had an erosion problem, and people kept falling as they descended the modest incline. 

“When I heard this project idea, I knew it was the perfect one for me and exactly up my alley,” she says. “Not only did I think I would have fun with this, but it also sounded like people would get some really good use out of it.”

Before: Another angle of the project site.

2. Get donations, and you won’t spend a dime.

Whether your project budget is $500 or $5,000, you won’t need to tap into your college savings to complete an Eagle project.

Cleis, whose project cost $745, didn’t spend a dime of her own (or the troop’s) cash. 

The biggest expense was the railroad ties, which were donated by a local railroad. The gravel and dump trailer were also donated by local businesses. 

A box store and restaurant made cash contributions toward the project. And the Knights of Columbus agreed to pay any remaining expenses the donations wouldn’t cover. 

“I am extremely grateful for all of the donations that made this project so cost effective,” Cleis says.

During: Cleis and her helpers measured (and remeasured) the site before beginning work.

3. You can lead people and still be their friend.

Eagle projects give young people a chance to inspire others and lead them toward a shared goal. Some of those people you’ll lead, as Cleis learned, could be adults or even your close friends.

“It felt a little weird at first to be the boss and give instructions to my friends,” she says. “But once we all got going, it was easy to tell people what needed to be done, and everyone was willing to do it.” 

Cleis says she was fairly shy in high school — sometimes afraid to voice her opinion. Scouting in general, and her Eagle project in particular, helped Cleis overcome that. 

“This project taught me to trust myself and my decisions,” she says. “I learned I’m capable of being a leader.” 

After: Cleis and some of her helpers.

4. Don’t try to do it all yourself.

Cleis says that even though an Eagle Scout project is designed and led by a single Scout, it’s not a solitary effort.

“You are the main person in charge, but you’re not expected to be completely on your own,” she says. “Part of being a good leader is using the resources you have and knowing how to delegate.” 

If one of her volunteers had special skills or knowledge, Cleis chose them to complete a corresponding task or ask for their opinion. 

“It’s too much stress to try to do every single part of the project yourself,” she says. “Ask for help.”

5. Communicate throughout.

Those people helping you complete the project? Make sure they hear from you, Cleis says. 

“That means your contact at the place where you’re carrying out your project, your volunteers, your donators and your coordinators,” she says. “Clear communication is super important with anything you do and helps avoid any confusion or setbacks.” 

In addition to emails to her volunteers and unit leaders, Cleis sent regular updates to the park management to keep them aware of her progress. 

6. If you’re on the fence, go for it.

For many Scouts, the Eagle project looks like Mount Everest — something that’s far beyond reach. But Cleis encourages her fellow Scouts to make that climb.

“Yes, it will take some time and effort, but it’s worth it in the long run,” she says. “If you put in the time now, even though it’s difficult, you will have the pride of being an Eagle Scout for the rest of your life.”

At the same time, Cleis says, everyone has their own unique path in Scouting. 

“It’s also fine to not want to earn the rank of Eagle,” she says. “Everyone has different goals in Scouting, whether that be to spend time with friends or to earn Eagle Scout. Both are perfectly OK.”

Some words from Dad

Tony Newell, who sent us news of Cleis’ project, says it “was fun to watch her take charge and run the project.”

He couldn’t help but smile as he saw Cleis direct and inspire her volunteers without micromanaging them. It’s a skill that should serve Cleis well in college and as she pursues a career in medicine. 

“I was proud to see Cleis stepping in only to coach, lead and check the work with a level to make sure everything was done to spec,” he says. “Everyone involved had a quite a feeling of accomplishment, and I think it went so well due to the meticulous planning and preparation before the project.”

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