The troops gathered early on a spring morning, just as the sun was breaking over the Montana hills. Mostly young men, they came in small clusters at first, a patrol here, another there, marshaling in the city park until their ranks were full. The ribbons and badges on their uniforms caught the fire of the dawning light.
You could tell by looking in their eyes that this was serious business. They came prepared for action, dressed in orange vests and hunting caps, wearing leather gloves. And they came heavily armed.
With trash bags.
For these were Scout troops, joined by Cub Scouts, some Girl Scouts, and a few other service groups. And their battle was an all-out war against litter.
This gathering of 289 in Missoula and others like it throughout the state would form an army of 7, 000. Dispersed in groups of four youth and two leaders per mile, they would clean Highway 93 from the Canadian border to Idaho. They would spruce up parts of Interstate 15. And working west from the North Dakota border, they would tidy significant stretches of Highway 2, Interstates 90 and 94, Highway 87, and other major thoroughfares.
By midday they would collect more than three million pounds of trash, including 2,000 pounds of recyclable glass and thousands of recyclable aluminum cans.
And they’d be home in time for lunch.
This one-day cleanup has been an annual affair for five years now. It started small, when LDS Scouts in northwest Montana decided to do something about trash on Highway 93. Their good example spread to district level, where “Project 93” drew 1,100 participants the first year, 2,000 the next, then went statewide as “Project Good Turn.”
Now people throughout the state are recognizing the contribution.
“The best part is when people honk and wave,” said Seth Tollefson, 12, of the Missoula Fourth Ward. “I think a lot of people are happy about what we’re doing.”
Indeed. One man traveling south out of Canada was so moved by the sight of mile after mile of volunteers, that he found their Scoutmaster and gave him $40. “Take your troop to lunch,” he said. Bakery trucks have stopped to hand out snacks. Soda pop truck drivers have spontaneously donated free drinks.
Community organizations have also chipped in. Amateur radio operators provide statewide communication. The highway department provides the trash bags and picks them up when they’re full. Radio and television stations air public service announcements advising motorists to slow down. The highway patrol cruises the areas being cleaned.
“A lot of the community knows that most of the Scouts are in on this, and that the Church sponsors a lot of the Scout troops around here,” said Cannon Flake, 16, of the Frenchtown Branch. “So they get a good impression of the Church when they see us out working.”
The younger boys eagerly tally what’s been gathered besides trash: keys, golf balls, tennis balls, a volleyball, an unexpired charge card (returned to the owner), a set of wrenches, cassette tapes, a warped record album, coins, a $10,000 cashier’s check (returned to the owner), a $10 bill (donated to the troop fund), a $50 bill (donated to the pack), and other souvenirs.
And leaders talk about increased camaraderie, since adults, priests, teachers, deacons, and Primary-age Cub Scouts all work together on the same project; and about how in ten years, there won’t be so much litter because Project Good Turn is making the youth aware of what a problem litter can be.
And, of course, there’s a noticeable improvement in the appearance of the highways. “One place we worked on looked like the city dump, but when we got done, it looked like somebody’s lawn,” said Scoutmaster Jim Bartmess of the Missoula Fourth Ward, Missoula Montana Stake.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the Montana cleanup has been what it has done for the young men themselves. “It gave you a sense of accomplishment, like you’d done something instead of sitting around all day,” said Seth Shearer, 13, of the First Ward.
“Most people would call it a boring day,” said Joe Diesen, 15, of the same ward. “And it was tiring. But I didn’t feel really tired, because I knew that I was doing something that was right.”
Mark Fallentine, 17, of Frenchtown, had planned on sleeping in, then spending the day getting ready for a school dance. “Friday night, I got two calls from the priests quorum about the cleanup. Then Saturday morning I got a call from the branch president. So I went. But after we got out and started working, I felt really good about it. And now, just driving by the highway and looking at it, I can say, ‘Hey, I worked on this, and it looks real nice.’ It taught me that I ought to participate even when at first I don’t want to.”
“One of the coordinators caught our troop just as we were finishing our first stretch of highway,” said Brent Chipman, 13, of the Fourth Ward. “He said there was another place that needed to be done, and asked if we could help. We did two more sections, so we went the extra two miles!”
Dave Speer, 12, of the Second Ward, told a similar story. “We did a mile. Then they told us to go ahead and do another mile, because someone didn’t show up. So we went back and did another mile. It was cloudless almost, and it was so hot out there. After a while, we sat down on one of the railings by the side of the road, and as the semi trucks came by they would blow wind on you and cool you down. You knew you’d worked hard, but it felt good.”
It might seem to an outside observer that the cleanup taught its participants an important lesson about service—that doing what’s required makes you feel just fine, but doing a little more makes you feel even better. And it did reinforce that idea.
But those who know the young men of Missoula would point out that going the extra mile isn’t anything new here. In fact, the young men are doing it all the time.
If you visited them that same afternoon as they went home to their families, or watched them the next morning in their Sunday activities, you’d see ample evidence that, when it comes to honoring the Aaronic Priesthood, they do more than the minimum.
—Stop by 12-year-old Jason Piippo’s house. His cousins are there, and he’s taking them to the house of an elderly neighbor who broke his hip. Jason helped clean the man’s yard, made friends with him, and now he wants to introduce his cousins.
—Erik McClure, 14, of the Second Ward, lives on the outskirts of town. He’s kind of shy. But he’ll spend hours with the neighborhood kids, showing them his rabbits.
Ask Erik about the Aaronic Priesthood, and he’ll tell you how, in winter, quorum members team up to shovel snow—“a lot”—for people in the city. He talks about the Aaronic Priesthood as a real blessing.
“My friends in the quorum are a help to me. They make me feel like part of a group when we do things together.”
—Catch Jay Stipe, 15, also from the Second Ward, as he’s going out the door with his home teaching companion, the stake patriarch.
“We always get 100 percent,” Jay says. “We take turns giving the lesson every other month, but I always call and make the appointments.”
—On Sunday, drop in on the deacons in the Second Ward, and you’ll find them checking off their weekly Book of Mormon reading assignment. They’ve all pledged to read every day for two months, and so far everyone’s on schedule. In fact, Brian Speer, who just became a deacon this morning, has already started reading.
—Over at the First Ward, listen to Craig Koster, 18, talk about helping younger priesthood bearers. “Being one of the oldest youth in the ward, I feel like I have to set an example. I remember how I looked up to the older guys when I was younger, and I know they’re looking at me.”
After you’ve seen them in action, take a minute more and ask the young men of Montana what it’s like to live in their state. You’ll hear about wonderful summers, cold winters, beautiful mountains, and hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing in the vast horizons of Big Sky Country.
You’ll also hear about service as a part of life, friendly neighbors and community spirit, and about people who cheer when they see garbage bags along the highways—“Look at all that trash! Isn’t that great!”
And you’ll agree with them.