Going Solo at Philmont



One of my favorite parts of the forthcoming second volume of the Troop Leader Guidebook deals with the special circumstances faced by very small, very large, and very new troops. In Scouting, we often assume that every troop includes three or four patrols and has been around long enough to have Scouts of all ages and ranks, but that’s not necessarily the case.

The biggest takeaway for me in researching that material is that every troop, regardless of size and tenure, can achieve the aims of Boy Scouting by using all eight methods. (Yes, even a patrol-sized troop can utilize the patrol method.) You may just need to get a little creative in how you operate.

A perfect example is high adventure. If your troop has eight members and six of them are 11 years old, you probably aren’t going to plan a trip to one of the BSA’s high-adventure bases. But that doesn’t mean your older Scouts can’t have a great high-adventure experience.

Philmont Scout Ranch, for example, offers eight distinct programs that individual Scouts can join. Here’s an overview (details are on the Philmont website):

  • NAYLE (leadership training, 6 days and nights, $395)
  • Rayado Trek (“the ultimate wilderness challenge,” 21 days and nights, $735)
  • OA Trail Crew Trek (combines a week of trail building with a trek, 14 days and nights, $300)
  • Roving Outdoor Conservation School Trek (combines conservation work with a trek, 21 days and nights, $535)
  • Ranch Hands Trek (combines horsemanship with a trek, 16 days and nights, $300)
  • STEM Trek (combines science, technology, engineering, and math activities with a trek, 12 days and nights, $870)
  • Trail Crew Trek (combines trail work with a trek, 14 days and nights, $375)
  • Mountain Trek (shortened trek for Philmont Training Center participants, 6 days and night, $415)

You can easily see that most of these programs focus on specific areas of interest–conservation or horsemanship or STEM–to better meet participants’ needs. What you can’t see so easily is that they’re a relative bargain. A standard 12-day Philmont trek costs $870, or $72.50 per day; by comparison, the 21-day ROCS Trek costs $535, or $25.48 per day. (In some cases, scholarships are also available.)

To me, however, the best part of these treks is not the price nor the program. It’s that they offer your troop a way to get Scouts involved in high adventure with very little effort on the part of adult leaders.


Acting Their Age at Eagle Courts of Honor



People often compare Eagle courts of honor with weddings, and there are a lot of parallels. For example, both involve formal ceremonies followed by informal receptions, both must balance the interests of their principal participants with those participants’ parents, and both involve sending out invitations and (let’s hope) thank-you notes.

There’s another parallel that I think is appropriate: the event should be age appropriate.

What do I mean by that? Let’s start with weddings. If a young woman gets married at, say, 25, it’s fair to expect the standard wedding and reception: a formal ceremony, a large venue, the father giving his daughter away, the bride tossing the bouquet, etc. If a woman gets married at, say, 45, some of those elements start to make less sense.

Similarly, an Eagle court of honor for a 17-year-old will often talk a lot about the honoree heading out into the larger world and how he should live as an Eagle Scout. But if a court of honor is delayed for a year or two and the honoree is already in college or the military, that emphasis doesn’t make as much sense.

Several years back, our troop did a court of honor for just such a Scout. Since starting college, Brian had participated in numerous mission projects, including a trip to Africa. So his court of honor became less an awards ceremony and more a celebration of a life of service made possible in part by Scouting. The audience also skewed more toward family and friends than current troop members.

In The Eagle Court of Honor Book, I talk about fitting the ceremony to the Scout. One way to do that—as we did with Brian—is to make sure the ceremony is age appropriate.

And be sure to let your older honorees in on the secret. I’d hate for a young man to never have an Eagle court of honor because he thought it would be just like all the ones he’d been to back when he was a teenager.

Check Those Expiration Dates



Look through your troop’s patrol boxes, and you’ll probably find a few food items that long ago passed their expiration dates. But that’s not the only thing in Scouting that expires. A number of training certifications (mostly safety-related) have expiration dates as well.

Youth Protection is the most familiar. Every registered BSA leader must complete Youth Protection Training every two years. Here’s a list of common BSA courses that have expiration dates (courtesy of the BSA’s Training Times from a couple of years back (http://www.scouting.org/filestore/training/pdf/TrainingTimesSpring2013.pdf):

  • Youth Protection – every two years (one year for jamboree leaders and staff)
  • Safe Swim Defense – every two years
  • BSA Lifeguard – every three years
  • Safety Afloat – every two years
  • Trainer’s EDGE – every three years for Wood Badge and NYLT staff
  • Hazardous Weather – every two years
  • Climb On Safely – every two years
  • Trek Safely – every two years

Most other courses don’t expire, but that doesn’t mean you and your other leaders shouldn’t retake them on occasion (or serve on staff). BSA programs and policies change frequently, and a great way to keep up with the changes is to retake basic training courses.

Retaking courses is also a great way to get your new leaders to training, by the way. Rather than say, “You need to go to training,” try saying, “Let’s go to training, and I’ll give you a ride.” That’s an offer that can be hard to refuse–or at least easier to take than that four-year-old squeeze cheese you found in the Beaver Patrol’s patrol box.

Honoring Their Sacrifice



I recently sat in a meeting with several moms from my church’s youth program. The meeting was supposed to be about why we’re not getting better attendance at youth group, but it quickly morphed into a discussion of the terrible pressure our young people feel to perform well in school, in sports, and in every other aspect of their lives.

Now, you can file this in the category of first-world problems (or even upper-middle-class, first-world problems), but it’s a problem nonetheless. As David Elkind has written in The Hurried Child, “The concept of childhood, so vital to the traditional American way of life, is threatened with extinction in the society we have created. Today’s child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress–the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations.”

This is an important issue for those of us in Boy Scouting, both because we care about young people’s well-being and because our program can be quite time consuming. It’s getting harder and harder for college-bound teens to carve out an hour for a Scout meeting or a weekend for a troop campout.

I’m not sure what the answer is–either for Scouting or for my church youth group–but I do know this: We should never forget the sacrifice many Scouts are making to participate in our program, whether that means skipping another activity, not taking an after-school job, or staying up until midnight on Scout night to do homework. It’s incumbent upon us to honor that sacrifice by giving Scouts the best possible program. A poorly planned troop meeting or a pointless campout just doesn’t cut it.

One of the moms in that meeting broke into tears as she described how her high-school son spends four hours every Sunday afternoon doing homework so he can come to youth group in the evening. We’re evidently doing something he feels is worth that sacrifice.

Are you?

But Enough About Me….



I was skimming a book of Sunday school lessons a few years back and came across one with an interesting title: “But Enough About Me … What Do You Think of Me?” I thought the title might have been a misprint until I saw that the theme of the lesson was self-centeredness—certainly an apt topic for youth today.

About the same time, I heard about an Eagle Scout who decided not to wear his Eagle badge until he’d given another Scout the sort of help he’d received on the Scouting trail. When he finally put the badge on, he was 37 years old!

What do these two anecdotes have to do with Eagle courts of honor? If we’re not carefully, a court of honor can turn into the sort of self-congratulatory love fest that Sunday school lesson frowns on. On the other hand, if we shine the spotlight on the Eagle Scout’s service to others, we can add a level of meaning to the event that no amount of applause can provide.

That doesn’t mean you should withhold an honoree’s Eagle badge for the next two decades, of course. But you should think of ways to celebrate both the honoree and the meaning of his accomplishment. If his Eagle project supported a local community center, hold the ceremony there. If he volunteers regularly at a food pantry, ask everyone to bring a can of food to the court of honor. And above all, emphasize in the ceremony that the honoree is really at the beginning of the Eagle trail, not at the end.

That’s a Sunday school lesson he and all your other Scouts can benefit from.

For more great ideas on planning Eagle courts of honor, check out ShowTime!: 45 Top Tips from EagleBook.com and The Eagle Court of Honor Book. It’s just $2.99 and available for immediate download.

What the Super Bowl Can Teach Scouters



Yesterday’s Super Bowl was a defensive slugfest better remembered for sacks and fumbles than lightning-fast runs and precision passes. For me, the highlight was the pregame introduction of every living Super Bowl MVP, all but two of who were in Levi’s Stadium for the 50th anniversary of America’s biggest annual sporting event.

What really struck me was a pregame mention that the stadium at the first Super Bowl (which wasn’t even called the Super Bowl yet) was only half full. According to SportingCharts.com, “The lowest attended Super Bowl game was Super Bowl I, which was then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, hosted at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had an attendance of 61,946. The game, from an attendance standpoint, was considered a disappointment as the max capacity for the coliseum was over 100,000 at the time.”

This year, of course, the NFL didn’t have any problem selling tickets–which resold on the secondary market for $4,639–or advertising–which cost up to $5 million for a 30-second spot.

While there are many reasons the Super Bowl has become a sports marketing juggernaut, I think the biggest reason is tradition. The Super Bowl is simply what people do at this time of year, even if they couldn’t care less about football the other 364 days.

Sometimes in Scouting we’re too quick to try something new if we don’t get the results we want. We give up on a senior patrol leader who isn’t working out. We don’t try backpacking again after a weekend of blisters and grumbling. We shift from one fundraiser to another to another without taking the time to establish a customer base. We don’t celebrate our past the way the NFL celebrates its great players and coaches in the Hall of Fame.

What traditions does your troop celebrate? How are you building on the past? You’ll never sell out a 100,000-seat stadium or attract national-level advertisers, but if you build a strong program, you could become simply what kids in your community do at this time of year and during every other season too.

Invitations and the Multi-Scout Eagle Court of Honor



Several years ago, I went, gift in hand, to an Eagle court of honor for a young man from my church. When I arrived, I realized there was a second honoree—one for whom I would have brought a gift had I realized ahead of time. (I knew him slightly but not well enough to garner an invitation from him.)

For whatever reason, that troop had encouraged each family to create and send its own invitations. That doubled the work of designing and printing invitations, of course, and it also meant that some people received two invitations while others, like me, received one invitation but only half the information they needed.

A better approach, I think, is to create a single invitation that applies to all your honorees and then to let each family send out its own copies. While you might save a few stamps by consolidating invitation lists, it’s much simpler to let each family doing its own mailing–especially if you use your ordinary communication channels, not mailed invitations, to reach current troop families.

One advantage of having families send out their own invitations is that each Scout can include a personal note in the invitations he sends. In our troop, for example, we’ve had Scouts want any gifts to go to the agencies their service projects benefited. We’ve also had Scouts hold separate friends-and-family gatherings in their homes for out-of-town guests. Information like that can easily be slipped into invitation envelopes before mailing.

Invitations aren’t the most important part of a court of honor. They do, however, set the tone for better or worse. Try to make it better.


My Seven Favorite Things About the New Boy Scout Handbook



One year and nine months after I was asked to work on the 13th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, the book is now a reality. It should be in a Scout Shop near you, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy soon if you haven’t already.

While some of the content has been carried over from the 12th edition, written by fellow Eagle Scout Robert Birkby, much of it is entirely new, as is the book’s design. (The 12th edition featured vintage graphics from all the previous editions, which worked well during the BSA’s Centennial Celebration but feels somewhat dated six years later.)

Now that the book is out, I thought I’d share my favorite features (not all of which I wrote!):

  1. The Chief Scout Executive’s letter (page 3), in which Mike Surbaugh explains how a chance encounter with the Boy Scout Handbook in elementary school launched his Scouting career. That story reminds me that we veterans sometimes forget how magical Scouting can seem to a new Scout.
  2. The STEM sidebars. In keeping with the BSA’s increasing emphasis on STEM, we’ve peppered the book with sidebars that illustrate the science, technology, engineering, and math behind what we already do in Scouting. I enjoyed learning and writing about topics like the technology behind sleeping bag ratings (page 278) and the math used in estimating wildlife populations (page 206).
  3. The practical camping techniques. I loved having the chance to add information I learned at Philmont about the “bearmuda triangle” (page 285) and the caterpillar technique for climbing big hills (page 250).
  4. The fun facts about nature we’ve added to the book. Since a book with national reach can’t possibly give Scouts much nature information that’s specific to their region–most National Audubon Society field guides are bigger than the Boy Scout Handbook–we’ve included tidbits that I hope will whet Scouts’ appetite for learning more. On page 195, they’ll learn about a tree that can live up to 5,000 years; on page 202, they’ll learn about an animal that travels just 55 yards an hour.
  5. The information on food safety in the cooking chapter, including a discussion of the difference between sell-by, best-before, and use-by dates (which many adults don’t understand). I’ve seen enough questionable cooking practices on campouts to know this and other food-safety information is definitely needed.
  6. The advancement sidebars throughout the book, which draw direct ties between what Scouts are reading and specific rank requirements and merit badges. I hope these sidebars will prompt Scouts to pursue merit badges they’ve never considered earning.
  7. My name on page 466. Okay, that probably only matters to me, but it still goes on the list!

By the way, Mike Surbaugh is not the only person whose life was changed by the Boy Scout Handbook. Nobel Prize winner E.O. Wilson, the father of biodiversity, credited his interest in science to the book. It’s fun to imagine how the new edition could impact the lives of today’s Scouts the way previous editions impacted Wilson, Surbaugh, and millions of other Scouts.