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Boy Scouts Celebrate a Century of Character-Building

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Scouts across the nation are celebrating their organization’s 100th anniversary this year, including the local Blackhawk Area Council. Although it has evolved along with society over the past century, its mission of character-building is as relevant as ever.

A century after its founding, Boy Scouts of America still offers educational and leadership programs for boys of all ages, including Cub Scouts for ages 7 to 10; Scouting for ages 11 to 17; and Venturing, a co-ed program for young adults aged 14 to 20.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is 100 years old this year, and Scouts across the nation have been celebrating. Although society has changed enormously in the past century, and BSA has evolved with it, the need for character-building is as relevant as ever.

“Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and kind” still describes the sort of youths who grow up to become leaders, and the kind of children parents want to raise.

Tom Brooks

“We’re all worried about the effects of things like video games on our youths, and we want our kids to have the best morals and values,” says Tom Brooks, special projects, Blackhawk Area Council of the BSA. “People back in 1910 had the same worries. They didn’t want that pioneer spirit to die, so they put something together to really teach kids what they needed to be successful and happy. It started as a homegrown movement that grew like gangbusters. The same thing that made Scouts explode then, still drives it now.”

Like other councils nationwide, Scouts from the Blackhawk Area Council have found plenty of ways to celebrate the centennial this year. For one thing, they joined their counterparts across the country in a live Webcast that virtually connected millions of Scouts in real time this summer.

Local troops also joined this June’s Harry Espenscheid Tour de Blackhawk, in which hundreds of Scouts converged on bike routes around Monticello, Wis. Espenscheid was an Eagle Scout who, in the 1930s, pedaled around the world. “He was a real-life adventurer, and someone we wanted to hold up as a role model to the Scouts,” says Scout Executive Don Kinney, Blackhawk Area Council of the BSA. “We wanted to preserve his story, and I think we accomplished that. We had about 500 kids riding bicycles on four different paths, including one 50-mile path. It was incredible.”

Nearly 500 boys gathered this summer in Monticello, Wis., for the Tour de Blackhawk bicycle trek, which took them on five routes of varying difficulty.

The popular event offered a perfect chance for Scouts of all ages to meet fellow Scouts from neighboring troops. “The Scouts really gained a sense of the size and scope of Scouting,” says Kinney. “They realized that the community of Scouts is much bigger than they could’ve imagined.”

The crown jewel of this region’s centennial event is the Air Camp, which takes off at Chicago Rockford International Airport Sept. 24-26. Based on a similar and highly successful event hosted in 2005, Air Camp includes a display of military planes, a stage show, plane rides for kids and about 60 activities, including two nights of camping on the airport’s lawn. A Teddy Roosevelt impersonator will appear at the Bell Bowl amphitheatre, a hillside arena on the southern edge of the airport. The real Roosevelt spoke atop that same hill during World War I, when the property was owned by Camp Grant, a U.S. Army facility opened in 1917.

The culmination of this year-long celebration was the National Scout Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. More than 45,000 Boy Scouts and adult leaders packed the base in late July, showing off their skills in archery, shotgun shooting, boating, hunting safety, technology and other fields. Ray Warren, Algonquin, Ill., holds many hats in the Blackhawk Council, and attended the Jamboree as a volunteer. He helped to oversee the week’s activities for more than 800 troops, and says the boys told him how much they enjoyed meeting Scouts from around the world. Looking back on his own experiences as a Scout, and now as a leader, Warren is amazed at the opportunities current scouts have.

Don Kinney

“There are a lot more opportunities for scouts to travel far from home for a great outdoors experience,” he says. “We’ve had youth participate in 10-day backpacking treks and sailing trips. They’ve traveled across the Grand Canyon, along the Florida Keys and even to mountains in Japan.”

It’s because of volunteers like Warren that the National Jamboree and local events are made possible. “Volunteerism is vital to the success of the Scouts,” says Brooks.

More than 15,000 youths are registered in the local council, which means a lot of help is asked for and received. More than 5,000 registered adult volunteers devote more than 1.5 million hours of volunteer service. The executive board of the Blackhawk Area Council is comprised of volunteer business and community leaders representing the council’s 12-county territory in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

With so many active volunteers and engaged community members, it’s no wonder that most everyone has heard of the Boy Scouts. But how deep is that knowledge? There’s much more to Scouting than wearing badges and tying precise knots. “The hiking, canoeing and camping – that’s just the honey for the bees,” says Brooks. “The kids love it, so that’s the method upon which we build self-motivation, cooperation and leadership skills. We really mean the words in the oath and the mission. It’s all about ethical behavior, values and service.”

Robert Baden-Powell is considered the father of scouting. The British lieutenant-general started a wilderness survival group for boys, after his military field guides became popular reading material. Publisher W.D. Boyce brought the group to America a few years later.

All of those qualities were essential to Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell. The British explorer and lieutenant general had long been writing books on reconnaissance and scouting principles for British soldiers. The field manuals were also popular among boys, leading Baden-Powell to devise a manual that would teach nonmilitary nature skills to young boys. According to legend, W.D. Boyce was lost in the London fog when a young Scout offered to help him find his way. The boy would accept no tip for his help, saying that, as a Scout, he could accept no payment for a good deed. Boyce brought the idea back to the United States, and with a group of dedicated leaders, launched the first American Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts, celebrating its centennial in 2012, also grew out of this movement.

A century later, those values of good character and outdoor exploration still make a winning combination for young people. In the outdoor environment, Scouts put their values into practice, develop leadership skills and learn how to cooperate with others.

“These kids have to decide who’s going to cook dinner one night, and then who will cook lunch the next day; they’ve got to decide among themselves who’s in charge and how they’re going to work together,” says Brooks. “It’s incredible what these kids can accomplish.”

Through that process of collaboration and problem solving, the Scouts realize the joy of personal achievement. “These boys find value in their experiences and become better citizens because of it,” says Kinney. “We’re building generations of kids who are prepared to take their places as leaders in our community.”

Rockford native Joseph Young, now a high school math teacher in Plainfield, Ill., says he loved the week-long camping trips to Colorado and Canada when he was a Scout. It was the relationships he formed with other Scouts and community members that he found most rewarding, however. “I learned valuable life skills that have allowed me to set and achieve goals,” he says.

One of Young’s earliest goals as a boy was to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest rank, a feat achieved by only 5 percent of all Boy Scouts every year. Young found it challenging to stay active year after year, as maturing peers left the Scouts to pursue other activities.

Joe Young

“When I first joined, my troop had more than 30 Scouts, and by the time I received Eagle, I was the only remaining member,” he says. “I hope the declining membership that occurred in my troop is not a common occurrence, because the BSA is a tremendous organization that has much to offer all young men.”

Boys are eligible to join Cub Scouts when they’re between ages 7 and 10; Boy Scouts must be between 11 and 17. The co-ed program Venturing is for young adults between 14 and 20. Advancing to the next rank takes time, commitment and drive. Being in Cub Scouts usually requires family involvement, since the boys are still young. From the time a boy joins, it takes about six to 12 months to fully advance to first-class Scout status, when boys learn about safety issues, First Aid and how to camp and cook outdoors.

Once they learn a skill, the boys have to put in a lot of practice hours and prove they’re ready. “The kids advance by learning a skill, demonstrating that skill, and then teaching that skill to someone else, which we believe builds their confidence and teaches them interaction skills,” Brooks says. A Scout also must go through an interview process with an adult leader in order to advance. He must explain the challenges in his Scouting career and what he enjoyed most about pursuing those challenges.

“These kids have to act like little adults and verbalize their achievements,” Brooks says. “Being a successful Scout takes a tough, driven kid.”
One of those tough kids is 16-year-old Alex Semenchuk, from Troop 37, Rockford. Every Scout’s greatest challenge, he says, is executing the Eagle Scout Project. But Semenchuk also has pursued several challenges as a leader among his peers. “The Boy Scouts have given me the exciting opportunity of working at Canyon Camp, in Stockton, Ill.,” he says. “I started working in the kitchen and then was able to teach Scouts – some two years younger than me, and some two years older – about the outdoor skills you need when camping.”

Scott Olson

Although he hopes to work at the camp again next year, he has his hands full as one of two Scouts serving on the Blackhawk Area Council’s executive board. As Lodge Chief, he manages Scouts and the events they participate in, especially the service activities.

“I’ve been so lucky to have been given such unique opportunities by the Boy Scouts, and it’s really taught me that when an opportunity presents itself, you have to take it,” Semenchuk says. “I’ve learned from every decision I’ve made as a Scout, and the leadership skills I’ve obtained from being Lodge Chief should come in handy when I’m older.” He plans to be a teacher.

The code of values that drove the early Scouts is still relevant today. Over the years, the BSA has adapted to a changing society, revising its requirements, eliminating some badges and adding others, in topics like American business, aviation, cinematography, computers, graphic arts and public speaking. Still, the BSA values its history. In honor of the 100-year anniversary, four vintage merit badges, for carpentry, path-finding, signaling and tracking, are available only this year. Since 1910, Scouts have earned well over 117 million merit badges; more than 2 million of those were earned last year alone.
Although a Scout strives to achieve as many of the 100-plus merit badges as he can, the badges are less important than his commitment to service, says Brooks. The BSA reports that more than 36 million service hours were completed by more than 2.8 million youth members and 1.1 million volunteers during 2009.

“It all comes back to the aspect of service and commitment to community,” says Brooks. “We’re always judging ourselves by the Scout Law. We truly believe it’s a guide to being both successful and happy in life.”

Scott Olson, a crime scene detective for the Rockford Police Department, in part credits his career and leadership skills to his time as a Boy Scout. Chris Linden photo.

Scout alumni are the best proof of that. Scott Olson, crime scene detective for the Rockford Police Department, says he learned many keys to success through his Boy Scout experiences.

“I learned how to set goals and then achieve those goals,” says Olson. “And realizing how to work independently, as well as cooperatively as part of a group, has really impacted my life in a positive way, both personally and in my career.” Olson’s two sons are Scouts now, and he likes the way the BSA involves families.

“My parents were heavily involved in Scouting, and one of my fondest memories is of a troop trip to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., back in 1982,” says Olson. “If it weren’t for the Scouts, we may never have had the opportunity to have an experience like that, as a family.”

Likewise, Young says that being a Scout has made him a better teacher as an adult. The patience, commitment and hard work he learned through Scouting are assets he uses every day. “My experiences with the Scouts instilled leadership qualities that allow me to be a leader in the classroom,” he says.

Indeed, the accomplishments of grown Boy Scouts are impressive. The BSA reports that 212 members of the 111th Congress participated in Scouting as youthsand/or adult leaders, and there are 181 NASA astronauts who were involved in Scouting – that’s more than half of all astronauts. The U.S. military boasts high numbers of BSA alumni as well. About a third of the United States Military Academy cadets and United States Air Force Academy cadets were active in Scouting as youths, according to BSA.

While no organization is perfect, Scouts past and present make a conscious decision to reflect the values found in Scout Law – to be courteous, cheerful, brave and reverent, among other things. They strive to live their lives with commitment to service and respect for themselves and others.

The world has changed enormously since 1910, when the first Boy Scout troop was formed, but the need for young men of strong character remains constant.

History of the Blackhawk Area Council of BSA

What’s now the Blackhawk Area Council of Boy Scouts of America is the result of many council mergers. Today, it includes Boone, Lee, Stephenson, Carroll, McHenry, Jo Daviess, Ogle, Winnebago and Whiteside counties in Illinois; and Grant, Lee and Lafayette counties in Wisconsin.

Soon after Rockford’s first area council opened in 1921, it merged with the Dixon, Ill. council, to include Winnebago, Boone, Ogle and Lee counties.
In 1927, the Stockton-area council became part of the U.S. Grant Council, covering Jo Daviess, Carroll and Stephenson counties in Illinois, as well as Grant County in Wisconsin. Eventually it merged with the Freeport, Ill. area council, and then with the council of Beloit, Wis., which meant the addition of several Wisconsin counties. The Illinois counties of McHenry and Whiteside also joined in.

Finally, in 1971, the Blackhawk and U.S. Grant councils merged. Troops from around the council occasionally get together for camps and other events, such as the Tour de Blackhawk bike trip this summer, and the Air Camp slated for September, in which thousands of local Scouts will work and learn together.

Famous Boy Scouts

Many famous astronauts, politicians, filmmakers and others credit their success, in part, to the skills they learned as Scouts. Here are a few.
• Neil Armstrong, first man to step on the moon
• Henry “Hank” Aaron, baseball legend
• Mike Rowe, star of “Dirty Jobs” on Discovery Channel
• Walter Cronkite, journalist and CBS news anchor
• Michael Bloomberg, New York City mayor
• U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

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