Volunteering, couple explains, is “just what you do”
One of them spends hours scanning eBay for pelts to adorn Boy Scouts’ ceremonial costumes. The other spends hours in the humid Gulf air, supervising Sea Scouts as they pilot ships across a bay—for the first time. Over the years, Laura and T.W. have both made minor careers of mentoring young people.
Why invest so much time and energy volunteering?
T.W. Cook replies, with a slight shrug, “It’s just what you do.” Laura adds, “The kids become family.” Behind their answers lies an inspiring truth: Kids are worth the investment, and service provides a joyful excuse for hanging around to see how they’ll turn out.
In 1992, when the Cooks moved to Texas, they assembled a list of “must-haves” for their new home: five acres, a grocery store and hospital nearby, and a handy school bus route. They tossed in the need for work, reasonable commute times, and a strong sense of community—and landed in Georgetown. Soon, they jumped into service.
Like Father, Like Daughter
In the icy dawn, six Cub Scouts poke and shout at each, getting in the way of breakfast prep. Laura steps into the skirmish. She asks the leaders get some water boiling and then turns to the kids. “Want to see something cool?” She sets out eggs of varying sizes and colors. Impressed, the boys stare at the speckled, odd-looking eggs. “They’re from my chickens,” Laura explains as she breaks the eggs into zip bags, which she seals and doles out. “Squish it around until the eggs are mixed.” The kids enthusiastically squish eggs and then place the bags in the water. “Give it five minutes, pull ’em out, and voilà—scrambled eggs, and no clean-up!” Problem solved.
Laura’s father, Verl Underwood, was active in Scouting for seventy-two years; a Lake Georgetown bridge bears his name and honors his service. Growing up, Laura attended Scout events alongside her brother. She fondly remembers a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch when she was six and a World Jamboree at age nine. She thought it a bit unfair that she couldn’t be a Boy Scout herself.
So when sons Cory and Joseph reached the right age, Laura seized the chance to join Cub Scout leadership and soon learned that there’s more to Cubs than providing snacks and presiding over happily noisy meetings. Planning activities, tracking ranks, assembling supplies, getting trained—these tasks take time. Laura loved the work.
Scout leadership training prepared Laura for service not only in Cubs—she’s qualified to run rifle, shotgun, black powder, and archery ranges at Cub camps—but also in Scouts and Venturing, the Scouts’ youth development program for young men and women. She’s received the District Award of Merit for her work. Her dad would be proud!
Despite the time commitment, Scouting wasn’t Laura’s only volunteer activity during her sons’ younger years. She worked with the Purl and Pickett PTAs, volunteered at Tippit (where she daringly instructed young archers), and assisted the theatre groups at both high schools. Once, she recalls, she agreed to “teach silk painting to preschoolers—I guess I should have known then that I was willing to try almost anything!”
She’s certainly proved her willingness. When her sons joined Order of the Arrow (OA), Scouting’s National Honor Society, Laura stepped up. She’s likely one of the few folks in town with expertise in hunting down “parts of dead animals on eBay”—furs, feathers, and snakeskins for the elaborate costumes that ceremony teams create. One find she particularly relishes is the badger (Billy Bob, to the family) that crowns her son Joseph’s headdress.
One of Laura’s happiest honors is to have been “tapped” for OA. She achieved Vigil membership in 2009 and received the Tonkawa name Hay Sikit Yantanakoh, which means “Mother of Four Winds,” a name the Scouts chose to honor her extensive work with the San Gabriel District’s ceremony team. Traveling to competitions, helping Scouts design costumes, and keeping the guys fed as they practice ceremonies, Laura more than earns her name.
The Accidental Scout
T.W. says that he’s “the latecomer” to Scouting. His path was “accidental,” a product of following his kids as they progressed from Cubs to Scouts. For five years, he served as a Scoutmaster capable of riveting a group of rowdy teens with a quiet, “All right, guys, let’s talk about what went right and what went wrong.” More recently, T.W. has become involved in Coast Guard Auxiliary and in Sea Scouts, a Scouting program that teaches leadership, responsibility, and maritime heritage as young women and men learn to operate and maintain sailboats and powerboats. T.W.’s work with the BSA has earned him the Silver Beaver award, a council-level honor for service to youth.
As a volunteer leader, T.W. recognizes something that’s sometimes overlooked in young people: their potential. “These are good kids,” he says, “and it’s wonderful to see them shift from being befuddled youngsters to becoming leaders.” He notes that while many organizations have kids “show up and do as they’re told,” in the Scouting model, kids “show up and make it happen.” As a leader, one of his toughest jobs is to repress the instinct to “help” by telling Scouts what to do. Instead, he allows kids the opportunity to learn by “making mistakes—without permanence or injury.” Scouting offers “a unique opportunity for them to learn through failure.” In athletics and academics, failure can exact a steep price, but Scouts gives kids the chance to experience failure without that cost. If a too-cool stove results in a sticky lump of pasta, well, that’s tonight’s dinner—next time, the camp chef will crank up that heat!
Experience has taught T.W. to stand back and see what young people can do, even in situations more fraught than sticky pasta. He recalls supervising a young woman as she piloted an eighty-five-foot ship down the Intracoastal Waterway. Nervous at first, this Sea Scout gradually gained confidence in the task, remarking, “Wow, I wonder if driving a car will be this easy!” Moments like this persuade T.W. that youth have a great desire to discover and harness their abilities.
Though their sons have moved on, Laura and T.W. continue to volunteer with kids, even as they keep in touch with young people they once mentored and who are now making their way in the world.
T.W. and Laura want to “stick around to see what happens.”
Handing Down the Call
Laura and T.W.’s sons carry on the family spirit. Cory, 23, is an Eagle Scout and Sea Scout Quartermaster who has worked at summer and winter Scout programs and has earned the Venturing Leadership Award. Joseph, 21, also an Eagle Scout, has worked at Scout camp programs as well. Last summer, he taught sailing at the BSA Laguna Station High Adventure Camp on South Padre.