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Eagle Scout hopeful leads mural project at St. Bernard's Church school building in Levittown

James Giella, of Boy Scout Troop 381 out of Hicksville, spoke on Jan. 3, 2015 about his Eagle Scout project to paint a religious-themed mural in a hallway at St. Bernard's Church in Levittown. The mural features faux storefronts with biblical references. An Eagle Scout project must involve community service and is considered a great honor. (Credit: Jeremy Bales)

James Giella is hoping to be an Eagle Scout, and he already has an eagle eye.

Dressed in his tan-and-green Boy Scout uniform, the 17-year-old member of Hicksville-based Troop 381 stands back to survey the work of the dozen or so volunteers he's corralled on a recent Saturday to help revitalize a long, bland hallway in the lower level of the St. Bernard's Church school building in Levittown.

The task at hand: a mural of religious-themed storefronts.

Various colors of paint have been laid out on a table for Giella's 11-year-old sister, Jackie, "the paint mixer," to work her magic, as one scout ventures onto a scaffold to reach the top of the 11-foot, 6-inch-tall mural. Noticing an area that needed some touching up, Giella offers instructions to one volunteer.

"You've got to get these white spots out. You see how it is over here?" he says, pointing to an area that had been completed to his liking.

Since mid-October, members of the troop and family and friends have been working to bring new life and charm to the school's light-blue cinder block walls with artistic renderings of stores called The Trinity Cafe, Heavenly Bakery, Noah's Pet Shop, The Good News Book Shop and Fire Station 3:16 (a reference to verse 3:16 in the Bible's Gospel of John, in which God promises eternal life for whoever believes in Jesus).

On this day, they're working on the last section: The Garden of Eden Florist.

The mural is a service project that Giella, of East Meadow, organized as part of his application to become an Eagle Scout, the highest advancement ranking in the Boy Scouts. The Kellenberg Memorial High School senior has been in the Scouts since fifth grade.

Joseph Bacchi, committee chairman of Troop 381, which is part of the Rough Rider District in the Theodore Roosevelt Council of the Boy Scouts, said Eagle Scout projects "need to benefit the community, but most importantly, they need to show leadership." Eagle Scout candidates mostly serve as project managers.

The idea for the mural came about after Giella reached out in May to the Rev. Ralph Sommer, the pastor at St. Bernard's and a former pastor of St. Brigid's Church in Westbury, Giella's parish.

"There are plenty of different projects you can do. I was looking at a few different things. Maybe a building project. But I was thinking, 'What is something that is going to influence the most amount of people?' I said, 'I'm good at art -- maybe I can paint something,' " Giella said.

That's when Sommer brought him down to the lower level of the school building, which is used by more than 1,000 people a week for everything from religious education programs to 12-step group meetings.

"When you go down to the lower level, it's just not an attractive place to enter. So I said, 'This would be great if we could do some art on the wall there.' And then I had the idea of doing a streetscape so that it would look like you're walking down a street, and he took to it right away," Sommer said.

Giella drew up some sketches, taking into account Sommer's request that the storefronts keep a religious theme, and presented them to him. Sommer approved.

"This was Father Ralph's idea to do this," Giella said. "He was the visionary behind the storefronts."

The artistic influences, however, are at least a little bit hereditary. Giella's grandfather, Joe Giella, 86, is a cartoonist who started his career at 17 years old at Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel Comics, then spent 45 years at DC Comics. Over the years, he's worked on superheroes such as Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and The Atom. He's been drawing the syndicated Mary Worth comic strip since 1991.

James' father, Frank, 50, is a cartooning and animation and AP art history teacher at Forest Hills High School, who also helps his father color the Sunday Mary Worth strip. The teen's uncle Dan Giella is an artist in the advertising industry who owns an art studio in Manhattan.

Sommer said James' deep family roots in the art world gave him a level of confidence to accept the offer for such an ambitious project, which totals 977.5 square feet and stretches 85 feet, 4 inches.

"I knew if they were looking over the project, we would be getting some quality work, and we certainly have," Sommer said.

While Giella's troop members, family and friends have helped with the hands-on elements of the project, he has been fully responsible for the planning and managing of the effort.

Even after Sommer signed off on the project, Giella had to write up an extensive proposal for the Eagle Scout board of review that laid out how the mural would benefit the community, how much it would cost, who would be involved and what materials would be necessary.

Once it was approved in early October, Giella secured painting materials donated by the Sherwin-Williams store in East Meadow, including three gallons of masonry primer, 20 brushes, six roller covers, two rolls of blue tape, two drop cloths, a pail and some T-shirts.

Store manager Vinny Ramnarine said Giella, whose family had been customers in the past, came in one day with a letter explaining his plans. He liked the idea and got the approval to provide the materials.

The mural was based on an outline that was copied onto a transparency and projected onto the hallway walls. Volunteers then penciled in the outline with the color scheme that Giella and volunteers mapped out in an almost paint-by-numbers basis.

Troop 381 patrol leader Alex Jaros, 16, of Hicksville, a junior at Chaminade High School in Mineola, said the mural fits the troop's goal of doing different types of community service projects, "not just simple canned food drives."

"This mural is different and we like it," Jaros said. "It's clever and really looks nice."

He's also been impressed with Giella's leadership skills. "The fact that we can do it with very little experience with painting shows very good planning," Jaros said.

Despite his artistic talents, Giella said he plans to pursue a career in business or education, and recently applied to Hofstra University, St. John's University and Adelphi University.

At Kellenberg, he is a eucharistic minister and belongs to several school clubs, including Christians Reaching Out Spreading Spirituality and Service Allegiance Leadership Teamwork.

Meanwhile, he is working to have the finishing touches put on the mural, which should be completed by late January. Then he has to present his report on the project before a board of three to five people that could include school and scout officials within the Rough Rider district. The board will also question Giella about his scouting experience, current events and his leadership abilities.

Giella, who's put in more than 200 hours on the project, says the positive reaction he's gotten has been well worth his time and effort.

"I love it," Sommer said. "It's what I had in mind, but of course it's executed in his own way. I'm just amazed and happy at his take on it."

EAGLE SCOUT REQUIREMENTS

To become an Eagle Scout, the highest advancement rank in the Boy Scouts of America, members must fulfill a host of requirements in the areas of leadership, service and outdoor skills.

In addition to earning 21 life skills merit badges, including first aid, camping, cooking, communication and personal fitness, each applicant must complete an extensive community service project that he plans, organizes, leads and manages before his 18th birthday.

The scout must also be active in his troop for at least six months after achieving the rank of Life Scout, the level before Eagle; and he must have held a leadership position in the troop.

When the service project is complete, the scout must go before an Eagle Scout board of review.

In 2013, the most recent year for which the Boy Scouts had figures available, nearly 57,000 youths reached the Eagle Scout rank, providing more than $206 million in service to communities across the country, according to the Boy Scouts. Since it was introduced in 1911, about 2.3 million scouts have earned the rank.

Last year, about 250 boys in Nassau's Theodore Roosevelt Council made Eagle Scout, said Joseph Bacchi, committee chairman of Troop 381, part of the Rough Rider District in the Theodore Roosevelt Council of the Boy Scouts. A similar number made Eagle Scout in Suffolk.

"The best of the best make Eagle," Bacchi said.

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