Recently I had the opportunity to witness Boy Scout Troop 66's Court of Honor during which those conducting the ceremony presented merit badges earned during the summer to several of their counterparts. It was reverent, respectful and impressive. Each honored scout received two or more merit badges - one scout, Donnie Lambert, received six, most of which he earned while at Boy Scout Camp at the Buckskin Scout Reservation near Dunmore. Obviously, Donnie is a hard worker.
After the Court of Honor ended, each Scout leader, counselor, Boy Scout and parent was given an opportunity to speak. One of the leaders, George Collett, who has been in Scouting for more than 34 years, took advantage of the opportunity to impress upon those in attendance just how important Scouting is to our youth today. He also used the opportunity to impress upon his audience some of the challenges the organization faces including declining numbers.
"Troop 66," he said, "at one time had over 20 members. Today we are down to eight. We are suffering the same decline in membership that the organization is experiencing nation wide. It is imperative that we work harder to increase our numbers. There are a lot of young boys out there who would like to be a Boy Scout - it is up to us to find them. Once we find them, we must then find ways to ensure that they attend our meetings."
Collett congratulated the scouts for their hard work to earn their merit badges and their reverence during the Court of Honor.
"One of the virtues of a Boy Scout is reverence," he said. "Each of you displayed that here this evening by your respect for what was taking place. It was as it should have been - you could have heard a pin drop during the ceremony."
Declining numbers is not only the concern of our local Scout leaders. The rank and file of Scouting is concerned, too. One member of Troop 66, Ryan Wegman, a senior at Tygarts Valley High School, wrote to the editor of The Inter-Mountain expressing his concern not only for the declining numbers in his troop, and the nation, but chastising parents of those boys who are already Boy Scouts for not making greater efforts to ensure that their children have a reliable and constant means of transportation to attend the meetings and other activities associated with Scouting. Ryan is well on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout only because of his dedication to Scouting and to becoming a better prepared young man for society. In addition to Scouting, he plays football for TVHS.
According to Katharine Q. Seelye, writing recently in The New York Times, Boy Scout membership has plunged 42 percent since its peak year of 1973 when there were 4.8 million Scouts. In the last decade alone, membership has dropped by more than 16 percent to 2.8 million.
Security and safety of the boys is a major concern. In a recent court case, a man was awarded $18.5 million in damages for abuse from a Scout leader when he was a Scout. Robert Mazzuca, who took the helm of the Boy Scouts of American three years ago as chief executive, has taken several steps to reassure parents that their children are safe. One of those measures was the hiring of BSA's now full-time youth protection director, Michael Johnson, a former police detective who is an expert on child abuse investigation and prevention.
I can attest to the rigidity of the enforcement of Johnson's policies - at least with Troop 66. Last March I was asked by one of Troop 66's Scout leaders to join them as a Merit Badge Counselor. I accepted his invitation and underwent a background check second only to the one I received when I underwent for my security clearance when I was in the USAF. For six long weeks I worried whether or not I had made a stupid mistake somewhere along the way that would keep me from working with them. Eventually I received word that I was "fit" to work with them.
At each session of the merit badge course I am accompanied by another adult who is either a Scout leader or parent of a Boy Scout present at the meeting enforcing the "Two Deep Leader" policy. Leaders constantly and rigidly enforce "The Buddy System," which ensures that no Scout is ever alone. He is always with either another scout or two leaders. The point being that no one is ever alone - they are always in the company of another scout and/or at least two adults.
Scouting is embroiled in another fierce debate - that of whether to permit girls younger than 13 to join Boy Scouts. Girls 13 and older who have completed eighth grade can join the Boy Scouts' Venturing Programs where many of the leaders are women. The debate rages in leadership meetings and on scout websites over the perceived advantages and disadvantages of permitting young girls to join. Would they be too much of a distraction or would their presence better prepare boys for the real world? The debate rages on.
With the interest in and number of youngsters in the ranks of the Cub Scouts, one would think that there should be little reason for the scouts to be suffering the declining numbers mentioned here. I had the privilege of covering Cub Scout Day Camp at Camp Mahonegon in June and there were kids running everywhere. Brenda Jackson, who develops the programs for the Cub Scouts, said that there were approximately 120 Cub Scouts to attend this summer's camp. Of those, according to Steve Clingerman, who develops the instructional programs for the Cubs, 35 were second-year Webelos who will remain with their Cub pack until February of next year and then become eligible for Boy Scouts.
Sadly, Clingerman explained some of the reasons why the BSA numbers are falling.
"With all the technology available at a boy's fingertip, it's hard to get them outside and to put a real compass in their hands," he said. "Even with the number of Cub Scouts becoming eligible to enter Boy Scouts, the numbers in the Boy Scout ranks will decline because those that cross over in the ceremony will just quit scouting and never attend a meeting.
"Moving into Boy Scouts is quite a change for some boys," he said. "In Cub Scouts everything is done for them - to a certain point. All the activities are prearranged. All the preparations are done ahead of time so that all the Cubs have to do is do the requirements for the badge they are working on and they are done. In a true Boy Scout troop, the boys do all the work from the planning phases to completion of the projects. The scout leaders stay in the background keeping them going in the right direction. The point being is that it requires a serious commitment on the part of the boy to stay in scouting when there are so many other things in which they can and do become involved."
Comparing the difference in discipline of those in Scouting and all too many of those that are not, we need Scouting now more than ever.