When Will Wallen was younger, he would weave blades of grass and vines he found in the woods to create ropes to play with. His father, David, said Will has always been inquisitive and tried to figure things out if they didn’t work.
David credits that inquisitive nature as the reason his son won the Freedom Award, the highest award for members of Trail Life USA, “a Christ-centered outdoor adventure, leadership and character development ministry.”
Will, 18, said it was all thanks to his work ethic and willingness to push through, “no matter how hard the job gets.”
“There’s always a way out, I guess — a way to complete the mission and not just run away,” said the Gainesville resident and member of Troop GA-0046, which meets at Westminster Church.
To earn the Freedom Award, members must follow and complete a strict set of requirements. There are different awards they must earn throughout their time in Trail Life. They have to complete a major and two minors, similar to college. They also have to actively participate in the troop and lead a project from concept to completion.
Will’s project was replacing a shower at the Good News at Noon homeless shelter in Gainesville.
“It probably was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do and one of the biggest achievements,” Will said. “It was a lot more difficult than I originally thought.”
While David was driving to to pick up the award for his son in South Carolina, where Trail Life USA has its headquarters, he said he couldn’t help but think about how proud he was.
“It’s not so much about the accomplishment that Will has done,” David said. “For him to get that award, that means he has taught other people to continue the tradition. That’s really what makes the award different than anything else, and that's really why I’m so excited.”
Will was a Boy Scout for four years following four years as a Cub Scout, and David was a scoutmaster.
But after moving away from their troop in Calhoun, they discovered Trail Life USA and decided to start a troop in 2016.
“It builds character from the outdoor skills, but also primarily from Christian discipleship and bringing up through Christ,” Will said.
“I saw an opportunity the Boy Scouts were not offering,” David said. “It emphasized the Christian aspect. Boy Scouts is fine, they do teach a religious aspect, but it’s very difficult to delve down into Scripture and put the emphasis on Scripture as Trail Life does.”
The troop meets once a week to learn different things like knife safety and map and compass skills. It's all “learn by doing,” David said. After learning skills during meetings, members go outside to practice.
Many meetings involve teachings on Scripture, too.
Each month, the troop goes on outings like kayaking, canoeing, white water rafting, rappelling, rock climbing and camping. They’re essential parts of Trail Life because they give the members real-life experience.
“We concentrate on high adventure, and part of the reason we do that is it teaches the boys to work together as a team,” David said, “And it teaches them that when you’re out in the woods like that, you have to be a team and you have to rely on one another and you have to serve one another, and if you don’t, you won’t survive.”
Will said being a part of Trail Life has helped him become a more well-rounded person. He’s learned how to teach and help those younger than him, and through that, he’s learned humility. In the end, he said he just wanted to be an example and role model for those younger members in his troop.
“It’s given me a lot of skills,” Will said. “I’ve learned how to be a better leader. Not just leading by telling people what to do, but leading by example.”