Jan 17 2024
Stephanie Markham | Daily Journal
Alexis McCullough’s sash of merit badges has become quite crowded in the three years she has been in Boy Scouts.
Her favorites are toward her shoulder — reading, art, kayaking, automotive maintenance, music, welding, archery, dog care, horsemanship — but she also has a collection of the badges required to ultimately attain the rank of Eagle Scout.
“I have a very big hobby of doing a bunch of different things just to say that I did them,” the 16-year-old said.
Some maternal encouragement never hurt, either.
“What my mom told me to do is, ‘I think you can earn all of them.’”
While the Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School sophomore is clearly driven and energetic, she also is motivated by a deeper purpose.
Four years ago, when Alexis was a week shy of 12 years old, her father, Col. Mark McCullough, died of a heart attack while on active duty in the U.S. Army.
At age 51, her father, who enlisted when he turned 18, had served in the military for over 30 years, including four tours in Iraq.
“Ever since he passed, I’ve been not fully settled with his death, because I never had the chance to say goodbye to him,” Alexis said. “So, I’ve always wanted to work toward finding a way that I can make him proud, or finding a way that I could honor him and honor other Gold Star families.”
That feeling brought Alexis to her Eagle Scout Service Project.
To advance from Life Scout to Eagle Scout, the highest rank and achievement in the Boy Scouts of America, one must complete a project demonstrating leadership and benefiting the community.
For her project, Alexis is raising funds for a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument to be installed in Marcotte Park.
Created through the Woody Williams Foundation, these black granite monuments honor Gold Star families, referring to those who have lost a loved one in active duty military service.
According to the foundation’s website, there are currently 132 monuments installed across the nation and 64 monuments in progress.
The closest to the area are in Dyer, Ind., and Naperville. Monuments are also in progress for Watseka and the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.
One side of the monument will read, “Gold Star Families Memorial Monument: A tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.”
The other side will feature four panels: Homeland, Family, Patriot and Sacrifice. Alexis will partner with the village of Bourbonnais to design images that represent those four ideals for the community.
So far, she has raised about $11,000 of the total $120,000 cost of the monument.
This included starting off with $5,000 of her own money.
She’s been able to secure donations from local businesses as well.
Donations were accepted this summer at a celebration of life ceremony at her dad’s favorite barbecue spot.
In addition to seeking more partnerships and donations, Alexis has been brainstorming ways to raise the remaining funds.
A pancake breakfast fundraiser with the Bradley Lions Club is in the works for this spring. She also wants to make and sell T-shirts to friends and supporters.
As the Eagle project must be completed before the scout turns 18, Alexis admits she is feeling the pressure to reach her goal within the next year and a half.
However, if that doesn’t happen, she plans to complete a smaller project for the Boy Scouts while continuing to fundraise for the monument.
An Eagle Scout Service Project is no small undertaking.
That is something that Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore, a former Scoutmaster with two sons who are Eagle Scouts, can attest to.
“I’m very aware of what goes on with these young people’s Eagle Projects,” Schore said. “This one is probably one of the biggest I’ve ever seen or heard of, at least locally. I’m really proud of her for taking this on, but it is a big task.”
Schore said he is impressed with the work Alexis has done so far, including working with national organizations like the Gary Sinise Foundation and Woody Williams Foundation.
“She is a very, very, very sharp young lady, and I anticipate her getting this accomplished,” Schore said. “We’re going to try to help as much as we can.”
Marcotte Park was selected so the memorial would be accessible but also tucked away in a quiet, serene spot, he said. This will allow veterans and Gold Star family members to reflect and meditate with their thoughts.
“It will be nice to have something like that in the area,” he said.
Before Alexis could begin, her project had to be approved by the Boy Scouts’ Rainbow Council as well as the village of Bourbonnais.
“At first, I was really nervous because I’ve never spoken to Mayor Schore ever,” Alexis said. “But I just kept my head up high and I was confident in what I was saying and [knew] that I had meaning behind it.”
Since her father’s death in 2019, Alexis has found a network of support.
Last winter, she traveled to Disney World through the Gary Sinise Foundation, where she was connected with resources and met other kids who’ve dealt with the same type of loss.
After making meaningful connections and friends on the trip, Alexis wanted to do more to help other Gold Star families. She then discovered the Woody Williams Foundation and decided to try to bring a memorial monument to Bourbonnais.
“My goal is to be able to also bring awareness and support to the Gold Star community,” she said.
She has also attended a Journey Camp with other youth who have lost their fathers, where she learned a lot about grief, the various ways people cope, and how connecting with others can help.
“Feeling like you have a support system, feeling like there is somebody there who cares, and that you have a reason to keep going and you have a reason to make your parents proud, that’s what I value,” she said.
While the memorial will not be specifically dedicated to anyone — rather, it will honor all those who have lost a loved one in military service — Alexis is certainly thinking of her dad through the process.
Her parents, Mark and Cassandra McCullough, are originally from Galesburg. They divorced when she was 3 years old, and some of Alexis’ best memories include visits to see her dad, who moved to Texas.
Her dad was like her best friend.
Summers were filled with water parks, roller coasters, movies, morning cartoons and cereal.
“He was really supportive of everything that made me happy. If he knew something made me happy, he would most definitely do everything in his power to let it happen.”
Alexis wants to pursue her education and career in music. She’s currently in a funk band, the Brass Monkeys, with her friends, and she participates in her school’s band, choir, orchestra and theater.
Although she won’t be following exactly in his footsteps, Alexis takes inspiration from all that her dad achieved in the Army.
Like the many merit badges adorning Alexis’ sash, Col. McCullough earned a good deal of medals from his Army service, including two Bronze Star Medals and numerous commendations.
“He passed away before I joined Scouts, but seeing him succeed as much as he did while he was in the Army definitely encouraged me to pursue greatness when I decided to do Scouts,” she said.
With more encouragement from her mom, of course, she went full steam ahead.
“My mom said, ‘You’re not allowed to quit until you’re an Eagle Scout,’” Alexis said. “Then, after that, it was more of a, ‘Well, if I can be proud of this, maybe [my dad] can be proud of me.’”