There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition, and 14-year-old McKayla Graves said that is one of her favorite parts of being a member of the Boy Scouts of America.
For the last three years, the Owatonna ninth grader has been building confidence, life skills and everlasting friendships as a member of Troop 355, the all-female Boy Scouts troop based in Owatonna.
“We act like teenagers and enjoy things like what normal kids do,” Graves said, when asked about her troop. “Most of the troops in Minnesota have gotten used to us girl troops being around and all that. We always like to have little competitions with them — and we almost always win.”
Troop 355 began after the Rochester-based, all-female Boy Scouts troop connected with local scout leaders about doing the same thing in Owatonna, stating there was local interest. Eric Reuss, scoutmaster for the troop, stepped up with help from a few others in the Owatonna scouting community, and the interest proved to be real.
In 2019, BSA began allowing girls ages 11-17 to join the national scouting organization. Cub Scouts, for kids ages 7-10, went co-ed the year prior. While Girl Scout troops are also active in the area, Boy Scouts must earn merit badges to move up in rank, and many of them focus on outdoor and survival skills. In Girl Scouts, scouts are grouped by age and not rank, and it is possible to move through the program without earning many outdoor badges.
Having more merit badge options is what Graves said made her most interested in joining Boy Scouts versus Girl Scouts. Today, there are seven active members in Troop 355, and Graves said she is ready to initiate more.
“We really enjoy seeing new people join, because we can show them the ropes a bit and get them to enjoy it as much as they can,” Graves said. “It’s a fun adventure every day.”
On Saturday, BSA Troop 355 is inviting middle school female students to join them at 6 p.m. at the Owatonna United Methodist to learn more about Boy Scouts, about the all-female troop and to have fun along with the current troop members. Graves said it will be a fun event organized by the troop itself.
“We are going to have fun scout games that we came up with for the event and a time where we can tell our fun adventure stories that we have been on,” Graves said. “We will talk about the camps we’ve been to and answer questions if they have any.”
Graves said they’ve also planned a campfire in the parking lot to enjoy s’mores with those who attend. Most importantly, however, she wants to let other girls know about the fun sure to be had with Troop 355. Her father, Nathan Richter, said he is excited to open the doors for others to see the impact the scouts has had on the young girls currently involved.
“It’s been fun to watch them learn new things and grow,” said Richter, who is the committee chair for Troop 355, responsible for “behind the scenes” matters such as finances. “I have watched them grow these bonds and friendships with each other, even when things were difficult during COVID-19 when we had to do everything virtually.”
Reuss agreed with Richter, saying Troop 355 is just like any other BSA troop out there, focusing on teamwork and experiencing life to its full potential.
“Our goal is to help youth become the leaders of tomorrow. Scouting is unique in that the program is run by the youth members,” Reuss said. “They work together as a team to plan their own activities and adventures such as camping, hiking, rock climbing, swimming, and fishing among many others. Scouting opens up a world of endless possibilities.”
Many people fantasize about packing of their lives and moving to a foreign country on the oceanside to live out the rest of their days. For few, that dream comes to fruition.
One Owatonna couple defied the odds 12 years ago by selling their home (along with most of their belongings), packing up six suitcases and moving to Ecuador.
Deb Anderson was born and raised in Owatonna and thought she would live in the area for her whole life. That was before she met her husband 15 years ago.
“He’s from Owatonna, too, and he told me when he retires, he didn’t want to do it here,” she said. “So we started researching other counties, and decided to go to Ecuador for a couple weeks. We fell in love.”
After their first brief visit to the country, the pair decided to see what it would be like to live in a coastal city for a few months. After that time, they decided this was the place they wanted to call home and never looked back.
“It’s hard moving to a different country. I had a lot of expectations that didn’t really happen,” she said. “I thought I would be fluent in Spanish in two years, and it’s been 12 years now and I don’t think I’m fluent, but I speak the language well.”
Adjusting to a completely different culture and customs was also an interesting experience for Anderson. She said at the time she and her husband, Cyrus, relocated, there were not many people living in the area that had come from other countries to make a permanent home in Ecuador.
“Not long after we moved, I started a forum for other expats to connect with and help each other adjust and find places to live, shop and eat,” Anderson said. “I also wanted to help people manage their expectations, because it’s definitely a learning curve. It was slow to take off at first because there weren’t many of us here, but now there’s thousands.”
Anderson has also begun a new career since relocating to Ecuador. When she still lived in Minnesota, she worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota, as a teacher, and as the manager of a retail store at the Medford Outlet Mall. Now she is selling real estate in Ecuador along with her partner Gabrielle.
“I’m very much an extrovert and I felt like setting real estate was my outlet to meet people because my husband is very much and introvert,” she laughed. “I’ve gotten to know my area very well and I love being able to share with people why I love it here so they can make it their home too. Gabrielle generally works with locals and Spanish speakers, while I mainly work with expats.”
She said the things that drew her and her husband to making the South American country their home was the culture, weather and cost of living.
“The people here are so amazing and welcoming. The freedom here and political climate is vastly different from back in the states,” she said. “Some people refer to Ecuador as a ‘third world country,’ but I think of it more as a developing country, because it’s definitely moving forward.”
She said it’s hard to argue waking up and looking at the ocean every day, and being able to go to a local market and know where all of your food is coming from.
“The people grow most of their own food. We didn’t struggle much during the pandemic because we’re by the ocean, so there’s fish, and we grow plenty of plantains, bananas, coconuts and veggies,” she said. “And they’re all ridiculously cheap, organic and freshly grown from farmers who live close by.”
With her family still in Owatonna, Anderson comes back to visit as often as she is able. Most recently, Anderson came up to take part in the Steele County Free Fair festivities last month.
“Last time I was here was in December and I had COVID, so we couldn’t really get out much, but it’s so amazing to see how things have changed in such a short time,” she said. “The downtown is just gorgeous. I went to have lunch at the bagel shop and then stopped by Costa’s and it’s just incredible to see how the city is changing, because the community deserves it.”
Despite permanently moving away, Anderson will always consider Owatonna her home.
“It’s still home and always will be,” she said. “My whole life was here growing up and my parents and family are still here, so I will always come back.”