An Eagle Scout project for the books

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Pictured is Ethan Ellis at the beginning of the StoryWalk trail at Morrison-Talbott Library in Waterloo.

The COVID-19 pandemic was not enough to stop Ethan Ellis from completing his Eagle Scout project. In fact, the project created opportunity for a community effort during a time when people have been mostly apart.

Ellis’ project is a StoryWalk display on the grounds of Morrison-Talbott Library in Waterloo. The path consists of 12 stations containing a section of a children’s book. The library plans to change the books monthly.

Ellis has been a longtime patron of the library and its clubs and programs. He also began volunteering during his freshman year of home-school studies.

Morrison-Talbott Library Director Jamie Wratchford said she “could count on Ethan as he always came early, stayed late, and genuinely cared about making our program a success.”

“I’ve spent years at the library, studying in high school, or now in college or just to have a quiet place to read,” he continued.

That made it an easy decision for Ellis to pursue his Eagle Scout rank while also helping the library.

Ellis said the idea for his project began during former library director Elaine Steingrubey’s tenure.  Wratchford suggested he find “something for the kids program.” 

“When Ethan and his mentor approached the library about a potential Eagle Scout project to benefit the library, we were eager to say yes,” Wratchford said, calling it a “win-win” since the library had been considering installing a permanent outdoor story display for some time.

Ellis explained that an Eagle Scout project needs to be the scout’s own design, organized and executed by the scout while leading others and something that will “leave a lasting impact on the community.”

Ellis says he began the design of his project in February and “then COVID happened.”

His Boy Scout council had approved the project “just before the lockdown” and later granted him an extension. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing guidelines and other pandemic-related mitigation efforts delayed completion of the project past his 18th birthday, the usual deadline for an Eagle Scout project.

“I’m so grateful to anyone who helped out,” he said. “We found a way to make it work.”

The list of those who helped include nearly a dozen groups and organizations as well as many individuals who donated financially or volunteered time to help with project construction.

One person who had a particular interest in Ellis’ project was Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith. 

While Smith was only briefly involved in Boy Scouts in his youth, both he and his father were Illinois State Police troopers. Ethan’s father, James “Mitch” Ellis, was a U.S. Marine and a St. Louis County Police Department officer. Mitch was killed in a vehicle crash in October 2019 while returning to his home in Hecker after a shift at the police department.

“With his dad not being there, a fellow officer, I wanted to see that his son’s project got completed,” Smith said, adding he did all he could to “make sure it looked good.”

“It was special to me because my dad was a former trooper,” Smith continued. “I really wanted him to attain his goal of becoming an Eagle Scout.”

Ethan said Smith not only helped secure funding, but he helped decide the type of signs to use for the StoryWalk, recommended companies to use, assisted with other parts of the process and provided a place to store the items as they were delivered.

“Mayor Smith kept in touch and was always checking in and offered any help he could,” Ellis said. “He was only a phone call away.”

Another organization that contributed was the St. Louis County Police Association, Missouri Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 111, of which Ellis’ father was a member.

 Ellis says he is “incredibly grateful” to the group for their help in the past year, not only with his project, but with his family.

Ellis said it was “a rough time” after his father died, but the county police “supported us in any way possible. They still keep in touch. They are a really great group who do a lot of good.”

Ellis recalled that his father wasn’t a scout but was “a huge supporter of me in scouts.”

“He did his part to help out with my Cub Scout troop and was an adult leader, helping with campouts and camps,” Ellis remembered, explaining he appreciated the time his father spent with him. “He made it more fun.”

While Ellis completed his final scout project without his father, the rest of the community rallied around him. Without the help of donors and volunteers, Ellis said the project “would not have been completed as quickly, or at all.”

He also said that so many people showed up during construction day on Nov. 7 that the project he expected to take all day was completed in about four hours.

Wratchford, who was on hand the day the StoryWalk was built, estimated about 30 people helped out – including Ellis’ friends, members of Scout Troop 323, Waterloo High School National Honor Society, scout leader John Durrer, adults such as Cheryl Hohnbaum and Ellis’ mother Nicole, among others.

The stands that were installed were created by Rob Stumpf of Iron Crafters in Waterloo based on specifications provided by Ellis.

Other organizations that contributed to the success of the project include the Waterloo Optimist Club, Waterloo Lions Club, Waterloo Odd Fellows Lodge 27, the Durrer, Wratchford and Ellis families, Morrison-Talbott Library Board of Trustees and the Ken Kelley Endowment Fund.

The StoryWalk officially opened earlier this month, but the official presentation had to be postponed due to the pandemic. It is hoped a ceremony will happen sometime next year. 

“Already, people have really responded well to it,” Wratchford said. “Even with the weather the way it is, I’ve seen quite a few people enjoying it.”

The current StoryWalk features “Howard B. Wigglebottom and the Power of Giving: A Christmas Story” by Howard Binkow, a children’s picture book about gratitude and sharing. 

The story planned for January is “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats.

Now his project is complete, Ellis is focusing on completing an associate’s degree at Southwestern Illinois College. Ellis, who has been involved in nearly 20 Monroe Actors Stage Company productions, plans to major in theatre studies.

The StoryWalk is available for viewing during normal library hours.

The StoryWalk Project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vt., and developed in collaboration with Kellogg-Hubbard Library. StoryWalk is a registered service mark owned by Ms. Ferguson.

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