Ravenna’s Young Marines program will shut down unless someone steps up to run it

Photo by IIONA VIRGIN

Ravenna’s Chesty Pullers are looking for a few good men … or women.

If those words sound familiar, they should. Chesty Puller Young Marines is part of an international organization founded in 1958 to mirror the values of the U.S. Marine Corps. Each unit is dedicated to promoting the mental, moral and physical development of youth from age 8 through high school graduation.

After 21 years on staff, Chesty Puller Unit Commander Ron Pownall is ready to step down. So are Executive Officer Gary Pfau and Financial Manager Jamie Hilverding.

Unless volunteers can be found to replace them, the Ravenna Chesty Pullers will fold Sept. 30.

“We’re just burned out. It’s not fair to the kids. We’re not as motivated as we used to be,” Pownall said.

The group currently mentors 10 youths of various socio-economic backgrounds, all of whom will be left with the option of quitting or traveling to Akron, where an active group still exists, Pownall said.

Anyone interested in stepping up should be available for weekly meetings, unit events and other duties unique to their assignment. Prior military service is a plus but not required, Pownall said.

He’s looking for adults who are youth-oriented and are motivated to do what it takes, whatever it takes. They must buy into the Young Marines’ values of leadership, teamwork and self-discipline so youths can live and promote a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.

The unit commander is in charge of everyone, ensuring that the kids are getting the proper training in a timely manner, that everyone is doing their jobs, and that the kids are kept safe, Pownall said. He or she also intervenes when a member isn’t doing well in school or at home.

“It’s my job to talk to that kid and get him back on track. I do more of that than anything else,” he said.

Unit adjutants need computer skills to fulfill secretarial duties, including entering data so members receive proper recognition and ribbons. The paymaster must track the unit’s finances, making sure bills are paid and fundraisers are properly recorded.

“The kids run the show,” Pownall said. “The staff is there to make sure the train stays on the tracks.”

Pownall, Pfau and Hilverding have committed to staying on for a year to train their replacements, should anyone step up.

“I’m not just going to quit and say good luck. We love the program. We’re just burned out,” Pownall said.

Chesty Pullers participate in Portage County’s Toys for Tots campaign, distributing 100 collection boxes at businesses each October and collecting them each December. Members spend hours sorting the toys by age and gender, making up the family boxes and ensuring some 400 local families have something to put under their Christmas trees.

It won’t happen this year.

“There won’t be any Toys for Tots in Portage County,” Pownall said. “They’ll have to go all the way to Akron to get their toys from the Marine Reserve Center.”

Chesty Pullers also spend the days preceding Memorial Day placing flags on veterans’ graves, and they participate in Ravenna’s Memorial Day ceremony. Members lead the Pledge of Allegiance and recite the poem “In Flanders Fields” and the Gettysburg Address from memory.

They participate in a memorial service for fallen officers at Ravenna’s Fraternal Order of Police post, march in local parades and clean trash from state Route 5 between Sandy Lake Road and New Milford Road.

Flag Day, June 14, is also a big day for the Chesty Pullers. Members participate in a flag-burning ceremony at the Ravenna VFW post, where they ceremonially retire one flag in front of the building and observe as local firefighters properly burn the rest. The ashes are then buried on post grounds, where they will not be disturbed. 

“That’s the way to properly take care of the flags,” Pownall said.

If the Chesty Pullers are still viable in November, members will spend the week of Veterans Day visiting nursing homes, where they present veterans with awards, share a meal and generally “show the veterans that we appreciate them,” Pownall said.

Members also enjoy camping trips focused on survival skills and good old-fashioned fun. None of it costs members or their families a dime. Members raise funds via spaghetti dinners, night at the races events, meat stick sales and Pennies for Push-ups, in which sponsors commit to paying various amounts of money for each push-up a Chesty Puller can do.

Chesty Pullers are named for Lewis B. Puller, who fought in World War II and the Korean War and is the most highly decorated U.S. Marine in the Corps’ history. He earned five Navy Crosses, the Corps’ second-highest award bestowed on sailors and Marines who display extraordinary heroism in combat.

The Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, is typically awarded by the president of the United States to U.S. service members who have distinguished themselves with acts of valor. Puller died in 1971, never outliving the nickname he earned for his blunt manner and the way he stuck out his barrel chest.

Puller’s dedication inspires Ravenna’s Chesty Pullers, many of whom intend to enter the military.

“We’re the only military-type organization around,” Pownall said. “They get to learn how to march, and the discipline, and the service. It does them well when they go into the service.”

Younger kids just like the uniform, but they end up getting much more than a new outfit.

However, their development, as well as that of their older comrades, is now in question unless a new leader steps up in the next few months. If interested, contact the Ravenna VFW at 330-296-9546 and ask to be put in touch with Ron Pownall, unit commander of the Chesty Pullers.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

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