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Decatur-area Boy Scouts adjust to accepting female members

Decatur-area Boy Scout troops are trying to figure out how to follow a new requirement to allow girls into programs, a historic mandate that has caused skepticism and questions about how the new rule will be put into place next year.

The Boys Scouts of America said in October that two surveys it conducted led the organization to the realization that families would welcome the opportunity to have all their children — boys and girls — learning the same outdoors skills and participating in activities together.

Local scouting leaders say each of their organizations will benefit girls for very distinct reasons, and with declining national membership, each has its reasons for touting its strengths as 2018 approaches and the Boy Scouts begin to admit girls.

“The (Boy Scouts of America) has received requests over the years for more family programming,” said Phillip Outzen, a local Boy Scout leader for many years. “More dual-career families and more single parent families mean more families are looking for a ‘one-stop shop’ for family activities.

But the Girl Scouts of the USA have criticized the initiative, saying it strains the century-old bond between the two organizations. Girl Scout programs are designed specifically to meet the needs of girls, said Pam Kovacevich, CEO of Girl Scouts of Central Illinois.

“I’m enormously disappointed,” Kovacevich said. “It’s no secret that I don’t believe the Boy Scouts are experts on girls’ programming. I think the Girl Scouts are. I don’t think that the environment we create can be re-created by the Boy Scouts.”

Staking out options

The Girl Scouts, founded in 1912, and the Boy Scouts are among major youth organizations in the U.S. experiencing sharp drops in membership in recent years. Reasons include competition from sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned and busy family schedules.

As of March, the Girl Scouts reported more than 1.5 million youth members and 749,000 adult members, down from just over 2 million youth members and about 800,000 adult members in 2014. The Boy Scouts say current youth participation is about 2.35 million, down from 2.6 million in 2013 and more than 4 million in peak years of the past. Boys Scouts reported about 1 million adult members.

The Boy Scouts in the fall said that surveys it conducted showed strong support for the change among parents not currently connected to the scouts, including Hispanic and Asian families that the BSA has been trying to attract.

“In addition, many young women and their families are looking for a very active, outdoor-oriented, leadership and character development program,” Outzen said.

Families are busy today. Mom and dad both work, or only one parent is in the home, and driving kids to multiple activities in multiple locations is difficult if not impossible.

In response to the surveys, Boy Scouts said it would admit girls. Under the new plan, Cub Scout dens — the smallest unit — will be single-gender, either all-boys or all-girls. The larger Cub Scout packs will have the option to remain single gender or welcome both genders. The program for older girls is expected to start in 2019 and will enable girls to earn the same Eagle Scout rank that has been attained by astronauts, admirals, senators and other luminaries.

The idea is not to have co-ed Boy Scout troops. Each troop will be all boys or all girls, and young people interested in co-ed troops are encouraged to look into Venturing or Sea Scouts.

Chris Long, Scout Executive for the Lincoln Trails Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said he has seen this change coming for some time.

“We want to serve the entire family, which means opening up to girls,” Long said. “Most of all, we want to give families a choice of what kind of program they want their children to be in. I think it’s important to note that we believe there are an awful lot of very good youth-serving organizations in our communities. We’re blessed with that here. Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Club, 4-H, FFA, churches, all have fantastic programs for young people.”

Programs will remain single-gender, he said, and the national organization is still working out the details, including any additional names for programs that might be necessary. Girls won’t be admitted to Cub Scouts before fall 2018, and older girls won’t have programming available until 2019. There are no plans for co-ed programming.

In the Lincoln Trails area, about 2,400 youngsters belong to Boy Scouts in Central Illinois, and 1,100 of those are in the Decatur area, Long said.

The council’s website has a note announcing the welcoming of girls to sign up in 2018.

‘Relevant to girls’

Locally, Girl Scout leaders reflect the angst of their national leadership over what they see as an encroachment on their territory. But they also note the differences of what they offer.

“Our curriculum shows decades, over a century, of outcome-based, metrics-driven evidence that we are developing curriculum that benefits girls, and I don’t think a curriculum developed for boys, which is the curriculum they’re going to use, will produce the same results,” said Kovacevich, the Central Illinois CEO.

Boy Scouts is a wonderful program for boys, she said, but girls need an organization devoted only to them.

Kovacevich said has heard from parents and leaders who land on both sides of the issue, she said, and she understands that for some families, the idea of a “one-stop shop” is appealing, but she believes it’s a disservice to both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to think that boys and girls don’t need specific programming designed just for them.

Girl Scout troop leader Quinn Muex agrees. She’s a new leader with her first troop, but her Scouts, for the most part, wouldn’t be interested in the Boy Scouts program, she said. Her troop is the youngest Girl Scouts, Daisy and Brownie, up through third grade.

“We do activities like, on their Christmas break, going skating, utilize Old Kings Orchard’s gym and go in and do activities like basketball and games. We’re also going to have a workshop with them, talk to them about money. The owner of Beauty Unfolded is going to do pedicures and manicures and facials to help build self-esteem” she said.

“At this age, that’s what they’re into, activities that help them earn their badges, community service,” she added.

Boy Scouts doesn’t want to compete with Girl Scouts, Long said.

“We have similar goals in a lot of ways,” Long said. “There’s got to be a way to work together in ways that we haven’t before, to turn a contentious situation into something that’s beneficial for everybody.”

Outzen’s son, Gideon, an Eagle Scout, said most scouts want to be an Eagle Scout. He was happy to make a steady ascension through the ranks, and it wasn’t until high school that he really began working toward Eagle.

He can understand why some girls would want to work toward that rank, for the same reason boys do, and he’s in favor of giving them the opportunity, just as his dad is.

“The title of Eagle Scout is not taken lightly around the community,” Gideon said. “From what I’ve heard — I haven’t personally used it yet — if you put that on an application, resume, or something like that, it gives you a boost in the applicant pool. However, because of this, you are now going to be held on a higher standard than everyone else.”

The Girl Scouts have a similar program, Kovacevich points out: The Gold Award.

She said it it is just as challenging and prestigious as Eagle, requires the same commitment that boys have who pursue Eagle Scout rank and it comes with the same community recognition as far as impressing college and career recruiters.

Girl Scouts are focused on teaching girls leadership and self-confidence, plus career exploration, in a place where they can practice those skills and find their “voice,” she said.

“What we will do is continue to stay relevant to girls, creating programs that are girl-centered and girl-focused that help us create tomorrows leaders in an all-girl safe space,” she said. “Now the Boy Scouts are part of the competitive landscape and that’s unfortunate.”

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© 2017 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)

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