Eagle Scout project brings gaga ball pit to Dixon’s Vaile Park

Gab Buelvas, 17, of Dixon, (center, blue hat), poses with the group of volunteers inside the completed gaga ball pit he led them in building for Vaile Park on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. The gaga ball pit was Buelvas' Eagle Scout project.

DIXON — A gaga ball pit is set to join the line-up of Vaile Park’s recently unveiled playground, thanks to 17-year-old Gab Buelvas.

Buelvas, of Dixon, led a group of about 15 volunteers – most of them high school or college students – in building a gaga pit on Saturday, Oct. 7. The build was Buelvas’ Eagle Scout project; his rank is Life Scout.

“I was on camp staff this past summer and every single day we got asked when gaga ball was happening next,” said Buelvas, a member of Dixon-based Boy Scouts of America Troop 85. “It’s just so fun to see how much interaction [happens] – even though there’s not really that much talking – and to see how many friendships are built off this game.”

Gaga ball – the origins of which are unknown – sometimes is described as a gentler version of dodge ball. Each game lasts three to five minutes.

All players start with one hand touching the pit’s walls while a referee throws the ball inside. The ball is allowed to bounce three times before it’s considered in-play, at which point any player can hit the ball open-handed. If the ball touches a player below the knee, they’re out.

“I’ve made a lot of friends through scouting, just playing gaga ball,” Buelvas said. “I’ve gone to camp, not known anybody there, been really shy and I played gaga ball there and I made a lot of friends from day one, just because of gaga ball.”

The gaga ball pit Buelvas built includes a gate which is Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and is wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through.

“I don’t just want it to be usable by able-bodied people,” he said. “As a scout at camp, I’ve seen a kid who could not bend over. All the scouts brought him into the pit. They gave him a stick and he played along just with us and we all accommodated for his ability and everything.”

The Dixon Park District always is excited to be able to assist in Eagle Scout Projects, and has done so several times in the past, said Seth Nicklaus, DPD recreation director.

“We always evaluate what would be a best fit for the park,” Nicklaus said. “The cool thing is, with our philosophy and opening a brand new park and how much we want to serve the youth, this is another thing the youth is going to be able to participate in in our parks.

“We’ve seen them [gaga pits] around,” he added. “They have one of these at our local middle school and the kids love it. You see them around in different camps. So to be able to add this to our park, we’re pretty excited.”

Buelvas has waited about three years to complete his Eagle Scout project, which was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s never going to be that easy, which is nice, which I like about this,” Buelvas said of the delay and other challenges he has faced during his project. “It shows me that not everything’s going to go the right way the first time.”

The project was going well, Troop 85 Committee Chairperson Thomas Halla said about halfway through the pit’s construction. Like most projects of any kind, they did run into a few things that needed to be adjusted, he said.

“We can have the best ideas and the best plans and then we get out and start doing it and there’s hiccups and things that happen and that’s part of it,” Halla said. “As a leader, sometimes I have to bite my tongue a little bit because the scout has to make those decisions, not us. We can guide them, but there’s a point where we step back and let them make the decisions and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

The important thing was that Buelvas was learning how to lead, which is a big part of what Eagle Scout projects are about, he said.

Based on Halla’s feedback, and his own observations of the gaga ball pit, Buelvas said he’s working to get something to cover the corners of the pit to prevent anyone’s fingers getting caught and injured.

Once the pit was built, Buelvas and his group of volunteers grabbed a ball and set about playing some inaugural games.

“I just hope that everyone can come down here and enjoy this project just as much as I have enjoyed getting everything set up with it,” Buelvas said.

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Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.