Survival skills taught with a smile
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
|Joseph Vierra of Learning For Life anchors one end of a rope with Jefferson Elementary School fifth-grader Keith Tseng during a demonstration.
Richard Ambo The Honolulu Advertiser
But Joseph Vierra Jr. "Mr. V,"as he's affectionately called can.
After 30 years of working with students as part of the Learning For Life Program run by the Aloha Council Boy Scouts of America, Vierra has figured out what children need, want and should learn to get through life.
And he does teaches these things with silly jokes and a big smile.
Vierra is one of five Learning For Life program specialists who visit nearly 12,000 students in 50 schools in Hawaii on behalf of the Aloha Council, Boy Scouts of America. They teach basic survival skills, such as using a compass and administering simple first aid, while instilling the values of hard work and respect.
"I don't think we've lost those values,"he said. "But we've been lax. We haven't been pushing them. We need to live together, be kind to each other. I don't think we've lost that. It's there.
I can see it in the kids."
One recent Wednesday, the 29 fifth-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Waikiki were mesmerized by Vierra, who stood at attention in the front of class, demonstrating the art of tying knots.
"Everybody show me the ends of the rope,"the 73-year-old boomed, his voice commanding attention, his demeanor commanding respect.
The students raised their pieces of rope in the air.
"Turn your chairs and face me,"Vierra said firmly.
"Now, take the blue end of the rope, make a loop. Watch me."
Some kids struggled with the overhand knot, unsure of which hand to start with or how big the loop should be. As they twisted the rope every which way, Vierra looked around the room.
"Some of you have it,"he said. "Some of you lost it already."
His intimidating stature is softened quickly, as Vierra, a retired special agents narcotic agent with the Army, playfully teases the students, who laugh and stomp their feet at his jokes.
"Hey, hey, hey,"he called out to one of the students, "you've got a pretzel there!"
He called to another: "This is not hula class."
Involved in the program for the past 30 years, Vierra visited 11 schools and 34 classes from September through February. Twenty-seven of those classes were with disabled students.
Although run by the Boy Scouts, this program is not exclusively for boys.
Samuel Krekor, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Jefferson, said this program is different from the Boy Scouts program in Oregon, where he's originally from.
One noticeable difference: "The girls are doing it,"he said with a sheepish smile. "And they can do it, too."
The purpose of the program is to reach at-risk or disabled youth who are unable to, or can't afford to, participate in scouting. Started more than 30 years ago, Learning For Life uses the instruction of basic survival skills to teach character-building, teamwork, ethical decision-making, responsibility and respect.
According to the 2000 Aloha Council Outcomes Survey, Learning For Life helped students tend to make better ethical choices, attend class and learn skills that help them perform better in their classes.
"It is really good because they do learn a lot of teamwork,"said Fayanne Sasaoka, a fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson. "After the program, I noticed the kids worked better together, they helped each other more and they're more aware of their surroundings. There's a lot of bonding."
The hourlong class with Vierra is not just about tying knots and pitching tents.
Program instructors always stress the Boy Scout Oath: to always do your best, help others and keep yourself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
"One thing I emphasize is following the Scout Oath and Scout Laws,"Vierra said. "They have to do it for themselves, not for anyone else."
What they learn in class, from safely using pocket knifes to making ropes, are put into action during the annual retreat to Camp Påpåkea on the North Shore in February and March.
Classes can stay for the day, overnight or for two nights, sleeping in tents they pitch and eating food they cook. The high school-age participants attend camp to help the younger campers; some get school credit for participating.
This experience is one of the most memorable for students, many of whom have never gone camping before.
"Camp was a good experience because we were able to camp outdoors, spend time with Mr. V and our classmates,"said 11-year-old Angela Yuen, a fifth-grader at Jefferson and Waikiki resident. "We got to do things like cook our own food, hike and crystal-hunting."
Many of these kids live in Waikiki, added Jefferson principal Vivian Hee. "The only backyard they have are concrete patios,"she said. "This gives them the opportunity to witness the wilderness."
Saori Larson, Angela's classmate, had never gone camping before her class trip to the North Shore a few weeks ago. Her favorite part? "The campfire,"said the freckled-faced 11-year-old from Makiki. "We did skits for Mr. V. He really liked it."
Using the compass to find their way around the school and cooking eggs and bacon in a hobo stove on campus are also big hits with the students.
No ordinary instructor
Even though he visits the class once a week for a few months, Vierra has become more mentor and friend than just program instructor.
"He gives the students individualized attention,"Hee said. "He'll stay afterwards and talk to students. It could be about almost everything: survival skills, personal problems, anything."
By Vierra's example, the students learn about respect, patience and gratitude.
At the end of his knot-tying lesson, he called up 10-year-old Sarah Naone to lead the class in the recitation of the Boy Scout promise, ending the hourlong class.
"How many of you remember the Boy Scout promise?"he asked the class, as hands flew upward. "Do you remember who you are talking to? Yourself. You're making a promise to yourself. How many of you look in the mirror and recite it? Good for you. Don't lie to yourself. That gets you into trouble."
Being honest with yourself and each other is a lesson Vierra stresses in his classes. Am I doing the best I can? Am I following the rules? Am I being the best person I can be?
He doesn't do this for recognition or accolades, although the people he works with can't praise him enough.
The only thing Vierra wants back?
"My reward is a thank you,"he said. "That's all I ask for."