Eagle Scout leads building of hydroponic garden at orphanage in Panama

Ian Simon built a hydroponic garden for an orphanage in Panama. (Courtesy of Ian Simon)

If you’re supposed to bloom where you’re planted, then Life Scout Ian Simon is flourishing. And he’s helping a local orphanage do some growing of its own as well.

For his Eagle Scout service project, Ian planned, developed and gave leadership to the construction of a hydroponic garden for an orphanage in the Central American country of Panama.

Why Panama? It’s where Ian and his family have lived since 2012.

Ian grew up as a Scout in North Carolina — a member of Pack 222 and Pack 97 of the Mecklenburg County Council.

In 2012, Ian’s dad, Glenn, took a job with VerdeAzul Hotels, a hotel management company in Panama. Soon after arriving, Ian’s dad restarted a dormant Cub Scout unit (Pack 1849) so Ian and his brother, Mateo, could be Cub Scouts. When Ian was old enough, he joined Scouts BSA Troop 1849.

Because the troop is an overseas troop not in the territory of the Transatlantic Council or Far East Council, it is officially part of the Washington, D.C.-based National Capital Area Council.

And why a hydroponic garden at a Panamanian orphanage? That’s the story of one Scout’s generosity, leadership and refusal to give up when faced with a challenge.

Ian (right) and his crew of volunteers. (Courtesy of Judith Rodriguez)

The hardest part: getting started

Ever since he became a Scout, Ian has dreaded the Eagle Scout service project — “not because of the amount of work, but because I had no idea of what I wanted to do,” he says.

While some Scouts have Eagle project ideas in their heads as early as 11, 12 or 13, Ian put off thinking about his project as long as possible.

Once he became a Life Scout, he couldn’t wait any longer. Ian asked for help from Ryan Kane, an assistant Scoutmaster in the troop.

“I discovered that the best thing to do when you’re stuck is ask for help,” he says. “Once I realized how much people are willing to help in any way they can, I realized that asking for help is one of the greatest things you can do.”

Kane gave Ian the contact to an orphanage in Panama called Casa Providencia, which specializes in providing a caring environment for kids with physical or mental disabilities.

Ian learned that the orphanage could really use a garden so it could grow its own food for the children. When Ian visited Casa Providencia, one of its founders told him that while a traditional garden would be useful, a hydroponic garden would be even better.

“He said it wasn’t as expensive and laborious as regular gardening,” Ian says. “And so I began my Eagle project.”

Work begins at the orphanage. (Courtesy of Chris Bergaust)

Step 1: Research

Ian started by researching exactly what hydroponic gardening would entail.

“I learned that hydroponics is the practice of growing plants using fertilized water, instead of soil,” he says. “That results in lower costs, as you don’t have to spend money on the soil.”

Wanting to learn even more, Ian attended a conference on hydroponics and visited a company that grows plants using the technique.

Step 2: Design

After understanding the concept and how it worked, Ian started on the design.

He found a bunch of different designs online and settled on an A-frame style.

“I had to modify the design as I encountered various issues including the nutrients not reaching the plants, sun and rain exposure — and many mosquitoes,” he says.

Step 3: Build

With the design finalized, Ian and his helpers began construction.

They sawed and trimmed each piece of wood and PVC pipe to the specifications outlined in Ian’s design. But the first attempt didn’t turn out so well as it seemed to be susceptible to termites and mosquitoes.

So Ian and his team scrapped everything and built it all again, this time applying an anti-termite treatment and sealing the structure so mosquitoes would not be attracted to the water.

“It was frustrating, but I learned from my mistakes and rebuilt the entire structure,” he says. “You just need to keep focused on your final goal and use every failure as an opportunity to learn.”

Step 4: Plant

The garden was looking great, but good looks do not a successful garden make.

To get growing, Ian went to a hydroponics store and purchased seeds and nutrients. He planted romaine lettuce, mustard greens and onions for the first round. No luck.

“None of the seeds were surviving because the nutrient levels in the water were too low,” he says.

Once again, Ian didn’t give up.

“I was able to understand my errors, and with a new batch of nutrients, the second garden was a success,” he says.

Step 5: Grow and eat

With the right mix of nutrients down, Ian started growing lettuce. He started with 10 plants. Once that worked, he doubled it.

“Throughout the process, I continued to make slight changes to increase the size and quality of the lettuce,” he says. “When harvest time came, the lettuce looked and tasted very good.”

Ian and his helpers even tried some of the lettuce at a barbecue Ian held at his house to celebrate the project’s progress.

“The guests really enjoyed it,” he says. “Even my brother, who usually doesn’t eat vegetables, said that it was his favorite lettuce.”

A concrete pad keeps away mosquitoes. (Courtesy of Chris Bergaust)

Step 6: Transport the garden into place

Did we mention that all of this work took place at Ian’s house? That meant that it was time to transport the hydroponic garden to its final destination: the orphanage.

A week before moving the garden, Ian and his team helped lay a cement floor — a step that would provide stability while also minimizing the number of mosquitoes around the A-frame.

It took five hours to remove the dirt, dig holes, place the framing, and mix and pour the cement — all in temperatures pushing 85 degrees.

“I was so thankful for the assistance of my Scout troop,” Ian says. “Without them, the project wouldn’t have been finished.”

The following week, they transported the hydroponic garden to the orphanage. A handyman helped them weld and bolt a metal frame around the entire structure, adding a clear plastic tarp to protect the garden from the harsh rain and excessive sun.

Now that it’s up and running, the garden can grow up to 80 plants at a time. And because Ian already tested it out, he can share the exact mix of nutrients needed to grow plants with little maintenance.

“By giving back to the community, we show the true meaning of being in Scouts,” Ian says. “It isn’t just to accomplish every requirement or merit badge. Scouting is about growing as an individual and as a community, and the only way we can help our community grow is by helping others within it, and by demonstrating that we care about others.”

Scouts prepare the cement. (Courtesy of Judith Rodriguez)

What he learned about teamwork

Ian says the toughest part of leading a team was distributing the workload in a way that seemed equitable while still maximizing everyone’s individual strengths.

“But as long as you find some way for them to help, whether this is simply painting a metal rod or distributing snacks, it shows that you can be a good leader by involving everyone in the project,” he says. “Leading allows me to continue to challenge myself to become open-minded and considerate of others’ points of view.”

The finished garden, growing strong. (Courtesy of Eduardo Arias)

Inspiration from a Scoutmaster

We learned about Ian’s project from the assistant Scoutmaster who inspired Ian’s act of service: Ryan Kane, whose family moved to Panama in 2017 for his wife’s job.

Kane first heard about the orphanage during a charity dinner. The speaker told of a local child who was neglected — a girl left in her crib for nearly 23 hours a day.

By the time the girl was 9, she still couldn’t talk or walk.

“After getting her proper care and therapy, they showed a video of her singing and walking around with others,” Kane says. “The only word that came to mind was ‘miracle.’”

Kane’s oldest son, Riley, considered completing his Eagle project at Casa Providencia. But the timing didn’t work out. Kane’s wife’s two-year assignment in Panama was coming to an end.

“It was clear we wouldn’t have enough time to complete it before we left,” Kane says. “But Ian was immediately interested.”

While Kane sparked the idea, he gives Ian and his team of helpers all the credit.

“The project turned into something far beyond what I imagined when I first heard the idea of a garden,” Kane says. “I got a lump in my throat as I remembered the impact my tour of the orphanage had on me and knowing how valuable this garden would be for those kids.”

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