After unspeakable loss, a strong young woman finds strength in Scouting

Olivia and Bill Jennings
Bill Jennings has watched his daughter Olivia grow in Scouting.

As the oldest of five children, Olivia Jennings was the natural pick for family babysitter.

But when her mom died suddenly in 2014, Olivia took on unexpected additional roles. She became a teacher, peacemaker and occasional chef for her three younger brothers and one younger sister.

She was just 11 years old.

As she helped her dad raise a family, Olivia learned what it takes to lead others — to put other people’s needs ahead of her own.

In sorrow, she found strength.

Five years later, she found Scouting. Although, in a way, Scouting had been there all along.

Olivia has watched her brothers enjoy the adventure of Scouting and even tagged along on outings with their troop. In 2019, she made it official, joining girls’ Troop 582 of the BSA’s Silicon Valley Monterey Bay Council.

“Scouting has provided a framework that has nurtured Olivia to grow as a confident and inspirational leader who values service to others,” says her dad, Bill Jennings. “She deserves that. Scouting is bringing some joy into her life.”

Olivia worked on a pioneering project at a Troop 582 SuperCamp in July.
Olivia worked on a pioneering project at the Troop 582 “SuperCamp” in July.

A place for everyone in Scouting

Olivia is now 17 and a Star Scout. She hopes to earn the Eagle Scout Award in the next year or so, taking advantage of the BSA’s temporary extension for young people who were at least 16 but not yet 18 when Scouts BSA launched on Feb. 1, 2019.

In Olivia’s story, we see a reminder that Scouting offers transformative experiences for young people — regardless of when they join.

There are young people who join your pack as shy Lion Scouts and grow into confident Webelos right before your eyes. Scouting needs them, and they need Scouting.

And there are young people, like Olivia, who join your troop as confident teenagers. Many bring into Scouting leadership skills forged through other life experiences but are still humble enough to know they aren’t finished learning. Scouting needs them, too, and they also need Scouting.

“Being a patrol leader taught me a lot about leading and teaching younger Scouts,” Olivia says. “The troop has a nice mix of younger and older Scouts from 11 years old to high schoolers. I learned how to lead them but also interact with them.”

Portrait of the Jennings family in September 2018.
The Jennings family in September 2018.

An unimaginable loss, a fight for normalcy

Bill Jennings had breakfast with his wife the morning she died.

He left for work at 8 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2014, and received a call just 15 minutes later telling him an ambulance was on the way to his house.

Bill’s son Will, then 10 years old, walked into his mom’s bedroom at 8:05 to ask her the plan for the day. She was sitting up in bed and seemed normal. When Will returned to the bedroom at 8:10, he found her unresponsive and quickly called 911.

The autopsy was inconclusive, but doctors suspect Tricia died from an undiagnosed atrial fibrillation. She was 46.

After Tricia died, Bill took on a less demanding role at the Silicon Valley engineering firm where he worked. He traveled less and worked shorter hours.

“It may be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: being a single dad,” he says. “But it has also made me a better person. My kids are my life.”

Bill worked relentlessly to keep his kids’ lives as normal as possible as they grieved. He wanted them to have normal childhoods. He wanted them to be kids.

Olivia (left) and her fellow Troop 582 Scouts in 2019.
Olivia (left) and her fellow Troop 582 Scouts in 2019.

The power of Scouting

Bill, a Distinguished Eagle Scout, knew of an organization with the power to bring families closer together.

“Scouting became a family activity that promoted the same values I would want the kids to grow into,” he says. “It provided a framework for me to help mentor my sons as they grew.”

The Jennings boys took to Scouting “like ducks to water,” Bill says. “They were ready to serve, grounded in strong morals and love the outdoors.”

Meanwhile, Olivia — like so many sisters of Scouts — was essentially an honorary member. She participated, learned and grew with her brothers but without the opportunity to advance through the program.

In 2019, when the BSA opened its signature program to girls, Olivia joined. Bill knew right away that she’d thrive.

“She enjoys being with other teenagers who have strong moral values and a sense of family,” he says. “In a sense, she needs a youth program like Scouting that is constructive and inspiring.”

Left: Olivia gives announcements at her troop’s SuperCamp in July. Right: Olivia teaches GPS skills to her fellow Scouts.
Left: Olivia gives announcements at her troop’s SuperCamp in July. Right: Olivia teaches GPS skills to her fellow Scouts.

Watching her grow

Olivia loves trying new things, helping others and making friends.

“And she has found a great set of friends and a program that challenges her in a positive way with Scouting,” Bill says.

Dad’s proudest moment so far came this summer as he watched Olivia plan Troop 582’s “SuperCamp.” Olivia, the senior patrol leader of the 46-member troop, worked with her fellow youth leaders to plan a two-week adventure designed to replace postponed weeks at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico and Camp Chawanakee in Shaver Lake, Calif.

Bill watched Olivia and the patrol leaders’ council meet through videoconferencing. The Scouts planned, in less than a month’s time, a safe, productive and fun two weeks of camp.

“It was so good to see her in action as a natural leader,” Bill says. “I didn’t have to say a word. She knew exactly what to do to make things happen.”

But as transformational as the lessons of planning a camp might be, camp is supposed to be fun. And Troop 582’s SuperCamp was certainly that. They practiced Scout skills, worked on merit badges, explored their surroundings and held a cooking competition.

“Even though the plan drastically changed, I had a really good time,” Olivia says. “When you are involved in something hard like Wilderness Survival and you come out the other end with your friends, it helps you build strong friendships. It’s also fun.”

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.