Boy Scout of America Turns 100

By Melanie Gold

If you thought you knew a lot about the Boy Scouts of America, you still might be surprised to read that 7 of our last 10 presidents were Scouts,* that British TV personality Bear Grylls is the current worldwide Chief Scout, and that there are girls in Boy Scouts. They’re all reasons the Boy Scouts is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2010.

“Hitting the hundred-year mark is a great achievement for any organization. . . . It shows that you’re doing something right,” says Craig Poland, Scout Executive and CEO for the Minsi Trails Council, based in Bethlehem, covering the Greater Lehigh Valley (including Warren County in New Jersey) and the Poconos.

The Boy Scouts came to America from England in 1910 after an American businessman, hopelessly lost in London fog, was rescued by a boy. Robert Baden-Powell, a British Army general, founded Scouting the previous year. He had written and illustrated Scouting for Boys, to honor the cadets who were too young to fight but showed courage as guards and field hospital assistants in Britain’s African wars. The book, widely used by teachers and youth groups as a manual for good citizenship, is considered one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century. After returning from the Boer War in southern Africa, in 1909 Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes issued the first call for Scouts in London’s Hyde Park. Almost immediately, Scouting crossed the pond through lost businessman William Boyce (who was born in Pennsylvania) and Juliette Low, a Baden-Powell family friend.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and its official mission is, according to their website, “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices” throughout their lives. There are 300 BSA councils throughout the country serving nearly 3 million youth. Locally there are approximately 18,000 children enrolled in the Minsi Trails Council’s seven districts. Individual group sizes range from 5 to 125 members.

Hitting the hundred-year mark is a great achievement for any organization…It shows that you’re doing something right.

The goal seems simple enough: “to work with families to make better adults,” says Poland. Boy Scouts offers programs to children ages 6 to 18, with continuing co-educational opportunities through age 21. Here’s how it works:

Children can join at any age. Between ages 6 and 11, children can enroll in Cub Scouts, where individual groups are organized as “packs,” then graduating to Boy Scout “troops” through age 18. Packs and troops meet regularly at a sponsoring facility, such as a church, corporation, or service club. In an age of pricey extra-curricular activities with compulsory parental commitments, Boy Scouts seems refreshingly inexpensive and flexible.

“It costs $15 to join,” Poland says, with no mandatory parental commitment. Other optional fees could include the cost of a uniform shirt or full uniform, plus any special programs, such as camp. Poland says there is a concerted effort for troops to subsidize program costs through fund-raisers.

In addition, young adults ages 14 to 21 can participate in optional co-ed programs. “Venturing” groups, which are organized as “crews,” engage in different “high-adventure” activities based on specific interests and hobbies. “Exploring” members are organized by “post” and participate in career-based learning opportunities, particularly valuable for the young adult whose family did not attend college or isn’t connected to a good career guidance program.

“Scouting gave me an excellent set of ideals,” says businessman John Gebhardt, 60, of Gebhardt’s billiards and trophies in Allentown. “I found that [Scouting] meant a lot more to me later in life,” when he could reflect on the positive friendships he’d formed and his cultivation of “better self-value.” Gebhardt has dedicated more than 20 years of his life to Scouting and is active with Troop 29 in Cetronia.

Poland says that throughout a youngster’s Scouting career, there is adult supervision and mentoring. Adult volunteer applications are approved both by the sponsoring organization—the church, corporation, or service club that provides the meeting space—then by a Boy Scouts background check through the state police. Adult volunteers with the Minsi Trails Council complete a mandatory leadership training program and are assessed for their personal strengths, then placed in appropriate volunteer positions. Minsi Trails currently oversees 5,500 adult volunteers.

Don Sachs, Minsi Trails’ marketing director, says that independent surveys by Harris Interactive show that Scouting encourages engaged citizenship. “Youngsters who are involved in Scouting for five or more years have higher graduation rates,” says Sachs. “They are more physically fit, more likely to vote, and become involved in civic activities.”

“Our Big Hairy Audacious Goal,” says Poland, borrowing a corporate catchphrase used in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, “is to have 75 percent of kids with five years or more of Scouting. Currently we’re at 33 percent. We can do better.”

Sachs contends that part of the continuing challenge for Scouting is fighting the “nature deficit disorder” that plagues young Americans.

“Studies show that children spend roughly 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor activities,” Sachs says. Boy Scouts addresses the deficit by providing opportunities to get kids active, outside, and interacting with their communities. For instance, the Scouting for Food program has participants collecting more than 100 tons of canned food donations that are distributed locally through food pantries. And there are the hallmarks of Scouting: the long-distance bike treks, canoe excursions, parks improvement projects, and camping.

There is plenty to do, Poland says, depending on how vigorously a child wants to participate and earn the service and merit badges based on community service, time commitment, and other factors.

“[The program] still has the same value it did 80 years ago, when we were teaching kids to read navy flags,” says Poland. “Today we teach kids how to use GPS systems. It’s still of interest and relevant to the kids. We’re changing with the times. But the idea isn’t to be better campers, but better leaders.”

In the Lehigh Valley, the Minsi Trails Council is ardent in its pursuit of recruiting African American, Hispanic, and Asian youngsters, and urban children who have been traditionally “underserved” by the organization. The Scoutreach program is aimed at marketing the Scouts to underserved communities, including single-parent families, through safe summer lunch programs and after-school sports opportunities, and by removing the language and economic barriers that may have prevented kids from joining in urban areas.

“Kids don’t join to become leaders,” says Sachs. Instead, he contends, they join for the social camaraderie and the fun.

“Scouting,” he says, “is fun, with a purpose.”

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*(The three presidents who weren’t Boy Scouts: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush)

Lehigh Valley Boy Scouts

• Wilmer Schultz, contractor and founder of the Schultz Organization
• Don Snyder, president of Lehigh Carbon Community College
• Pat Toomey, U.S. representative
• Don Walp, owner of former Walp’s restaurant
• Dick Wilson, president of Buckeye Pipeline

Famous Boy Scouts

• Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon
• Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City
• Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlon winner
• Beasley Reece, NFL player
• Steven Spielberg, movie director

Melanie Gold is a freelance writer and book editor in Northampton County who is also a former Brownie Girl Scout and 4-H member.

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