September 22, 2014 by
Photography by Sara Lemke

Justin Niss spent the day before the Fourth of July out in the sunshine. But he wasn’t hanging out with buddies or lounging at the lake. Niss spent a long, hot day volunteering to clean up tornado damage in Pilger, Neb.

“I just wanted to help,” says the 17-year-old aspiring Eagle Scout from Troop 558, who has also signed on with the United States Marine Corps. With a group of fellow recruits, Niss worked hours in the heat wearing long pants, work boots and heavy gloves, tearing down a partially destroyed storage structure piece by piece.

“There was some pretty heavy metal,” says Niss, a senior at Elkhorn High School. “There were ceiling braces, and those were really heavy.”

His Boy Scout experience helped prepare him for the task, he says.

“I knew the basics on how to clean something up and fix things and put new things in spaces,” he says. “So I just kind of put that experience in a new context.”

District Executive Tracy Yost, with the Diamond Dick District (part of the Boy Scouts of America Mid-America Council, the same council Omaha-area troops are part of), says volunteering is second nature to a Boy Scout.

“We go back to, ‘Do a good turn daily’—one of the Scout mottos. We leave no trace. That’s a Scout concept: Leave the place better than we found it,” says Yost, who oversaw the Pilger volunteering efforts of the region’s Boy Scouts. “These kids have such a sense of giving back to the community at such a young age.”

Yost’s district serves an eight-county area in northeast Nebraska, including Pilger and other communities and rural areas affected by the June tornadoes.

“Some of these places have been wiped clean,” she says. “It’s so emotional, everybody in the community seems to know somebody who has taken a direct hit and a loss.”

Yost says that Scouts from the immediate area stepped up to help right away, quickly followed by out-of-towners like Niss.

“In a situation like this, they don’t care what they’re earning for badges; it’s kind of like an instinct in them,” Yost says, adding that organizers were able to find work for even the younger Scout volunteers.

“There are fields that have debris spread all over and they have to be walked,” Yost says. “It’s getting your hands down and dirty. You just have no idea until you actually, physically go see it in person what damage has been done. The debris—everywhere.”

Niss, who says his parents “were all for it” when he asked for their consent to volunteer, went willingly into Pilger despite not knowing exactly what would be asked of him.

“I’d seen the pictures right after (the tornadoes) happened, so when we actually got there, it looked a lot better than I thought. There’s like nothing left of the town, but there’s not rubble everywhere. It’s a lot of plain lots,” he says. “They’re making progress, but there’s still a lot left to do,” he says.

Niss says he feels good about helping in Pilger, and was also pleased to find himself in good company.

“While we were there, there were always people driving around and helping others; there were five or six people who stopped and helped us take the building down. We had people stop and give us water while we were working,” Niss says. “It was surprising how many people were there helping. It was amazing.”

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