Tyler Wess of Caledonia Boy Scout Troop 9 salutes during a flag retirement ceremony Friday night at Columbus Air Force Base. Though Scouting has changed over the years, local officials say the core values remain the same. Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson
Leon “IV” Ellis speaks during a flag retirement ceremony Friday night at Columbus Air Force Base. Ellis, a member of Caledonia Boy Scout Troop 9, is working towards becoming an Eagle Scout.
Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson
Chas Allen, Scoutmaster for Caledonia Boy Scout Troop 9, talks with a member of his troop Friday night at Columbus Air Force Base. Though Scouting has changed over the years, local officials say the core values remain the same.
Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson
June 4, 2011 10:30:00 PM
They are CEOs, astronauts, politicians and engineers. They are neighbors, husbands, fathers and sons. Neil Armstrong was one. So was Gerald Ford, Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Walton, Steven Spielberg and Paul Theroux. Ordinary men living extraordinary lives. Extraordinary character forged in ordinary ways.
Patience, taught on a cold winter morning while trying to rub two sticks together and make fire. Cheerfulness, taught on a drizzly afternoon while hiking through a bug-infested forest. Thousands of lessons, absorbed over thousands of hours, on the long road to becoming a man.
This is the gift of the Boy Scouts, says Area Operations Manager Curtis Hollingsworth: Opportunities presented; avenues explored; doors opened; leaders made.
Locally, a scant 1,000 boys currently make up the 10-county Pushmataha Area Council, but on a national level, the Boy Scouts of America claims more than 4.5 million members. More than 110 million have passed through the ranks since the organization's inception in 1910. As times change, so too, the Scouts have changed. But the more things change, the more things remain the same.
A 9,000-mile journey
This fall, Hollingsworth will do what he does every fall -- he will drive from one end of the Pushmataha Area Council to the other, fighting for the chance to tell the Scouts' story. He will cross Lowndes, Monroe, Chickasaw, Calhoun, Webster, Clay, Choctaw, Winston, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties. He will battle fatigue, frustration and time. He will win a few hearts. And those few hearts will be worth the drive.
Hollingsworth believes in his message, because he saw the Boy Scouts' influence in his own life. He sees it in the life of his son.
As a young man growing up in the fields of Inverness in the Mississippi Delta, he didn't have many options. His father expected him to follow in his footsteps as a cotton farmer, but farming held little allure. When he discovered the Boy Scouts, he fell in love.
It's a love affair that never ended. A farmer's son from the pancake-flat Delta ended up seeing the world.
"It taught me leadership at a young age," he said. "It opened up doors and avenues I never would have had if I'd stayed on the farm."
When his son, Tyler Hollingsworth, turned six, he wanted that same experience for him. Tyler had severe learning disabilities, and he thought Cub Scouts would make him more confident, higher functioning, more well-rounded. After five months as a Scout, doctors noticed marked improvement.
Now 11, Tyler is working toward his Personal Management merit badge. He has created a small business, placing gumball and toy machines in local stores. He's now making nearly $250 a week in profits, 25 percent of which he gives back to the Boy Scouts.
Fighting 'rents, hoops and 'fumes
Scout recruitment is easy among the younger set, Hollingsworth said, but he doesn't try once boys have passed the seventh grade. Nearly two-thirds of the Pushmataha Council's 1,000 members are Cub Scouts, and many drop out and lose interest by their teenage years. A lot of the membership churn is due to gas fumes and perfume -- cars and girls.
If he can get a boy to the rank of First Class, he will have taught him the basics to survive, from camping and outdoors skills, to taking care of himself in the wild. In all likelihood, that same boy will have also held at least one junior leadership position.
But before Hollingsworth gets that far, he has to first win the hearts of the parents, and that is his toughest challenge, especially in rural areas.
"I can go into a school and do a recruitment, and every child will want to join," Hollingsworth said. "But when it comes to sign up night, that's when you have to really do the selling."
These days, he says, parents want their sons involved in sports. They dream of them earning scholarships, maybe even going pro. Hollingsworth tries to tell them that the opportunities scouting offers are open to every boy, but not every boy will make it to the pros.
"It's a hard message to get across to parents," he said. "They don't want to hear it."
Then there are the schools themselves. With the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act and stricter curriculums, teachers are reluctant to relinquish classroom time to Scout recruitment. Hollingsworth said that's particularly true in Columbus.
"The curriculum here is so hard, schools don't have time to give me five minutes in the classroom," he said. "I have more trouble getting into schools here than anywhere else."
Legalities also muddy the issue. In the past, a pack only had to have one leader. Now, with the rise of child abuse allegations and other safety concerns, the Boy Scouts of America has adopted a policy of "two-deep leadership."
Every troop must have two registered adult leaders, or one leader and at least one parent, for every activity. No one-on-one interaction is allowed, and all leaders must take a Youth Protection training course. Even if Hollingsworth is able to recruit 1,000 boys, he must follow up by recruiting 50 adult leaders.
"Scouting's not cool anymore," Hollingsworth says. "But scouting has so much to offer. It's sad that parents are allowing kids to miss out on that opportunity."
Where Eagles dare
For every boy who learns the three-fingered Scout salute, there is a dream: One day, he will reach Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the organization, and one held for life. Only 2 percent of Cub Scouts will ever wear the coveted silver wings.
Hollingsworth is not an Eagle Scout, a regret he attributes to his own lack of initiative. But last year, the Pushmataha Area Council produced 35 Eagles. Sometimes months pass before Hollingsworth even gets an application.
Leon Ellis IV, known as "IV," is working towards his Eagle Scout rank. He recently graduated from Caledonia High School, and Friday night, he was at Columbus Air Force Base, leading a flag retirement ceremony as part of his requirements. Ellis said being involved in Boy Scouts has taught him responsibility and curbed his tendency to procrastinate.
"If I don't make it to Eagle, I will be very displeased with myself," he said.
Airman 1st Class Chase Hedrick, also present Friday night, earned his Eagle Scout in 2003 by creating an outdoor reading area at his local library. He said without his Scoutmaster, troop and parents, he couldn't have made it.
"They kept me going and kept me focused," Hedrick said. "I ended up becoming a much better person, a better scout, and a better airman."
Early involvement with the Boy Scouts is a common theme in the military, and it holds a high appeal for recruiters.
Capt. Angela Cyrus, formerly of Columbus and now director of admissions for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., says while earning an Eagle isn't the sole tipping factor on applicant resumes, it "speaks volumes."
"Leadership is a very important dimension we look for when considering an applicant," she said. "We're looking for someone who demonstrates potential to become a good naval officer and has the aptitude to be successful at this institution."
Likewise, an applicant who became "almost an Eagle" says a great deal as well, she said.
Ryan Putnam, 20, became an Eagle Scout in 2008.
"There were definitely times I thought, 'This is hard. Is it going to be worth it?'" Putnam said. "But it taught me how to go through the good times and the bad. It taught me that if you want something, you have to work for it."
Transition and tradition
These days, Scouts earn merit badges in technology, electronics and robotics, along with camping, canoeing and fishing. Meals aren't as simple as roasting wieners over a campfire -- now troop leaders must take cultural and religious preferences into consideration.
Spirituality, always a core component of the Boy Scouts, has led to national lawsuits. There has been national litigation over allegations of gender bias and the refusal to admit atheists and homosexuals to p
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
benjdm commented at 6/4/2011 10:45:00 PM:
"Hollingsworth tries to tell them that the opportunities scouting offers are open to every boy"
Maybe more people would be open to Scouting if Scouting leaders would stop lying. The opportunities scouting offers are only open to every heterosexual male theist.
kj commented at 6/5/2011 3:36:00 PM:
At the troop level, scouting can be an awesome experience.
I attained the rank of Eagle in 1983. I very rarely mention it to anyone. Its personal value to me has not diminished; it was an excellent achievement. But as proud of that accomplishment as I am, I am not proud of the fact that I was a part of the Boy Scouts of America.
At the national level, the BSA has been working diligently to burnish its image as a wholesome organization. But try as they may, it is not possible for them to conceal the festering cancer that continues to consume the organization from within. This cancer has fed on the trust and love of generations of scouts and has, sadly, itself become one of the BSA's core values: discrimination.
While Scouts may be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent the organization to which they belong fails to achieve many of these.
cwgmpls commented at 6/6/2011 12:52:00 PM:
Personally, I don't mind Boy Scouts of America discrimination so much. By definition, any values-based club discriminates in membership based on its stated core values. What bothers me is BSA's inability to be honest about it. Instead of telling everyone "opportunities scouting offers are open to every boy", which is not true, the honest thing to say is "opportunities scouting offers are open to all boys who agree with BSA's core values". If these values are so important that BSA is willing to defend them all the way to the Supreme Court, couldn't they at least be honest about their values when they speak publicly?
educationfirst commented at 6/6/2011 2:40:00 PM:
I can understand the frustration with the organization as a whole, but my experience with Scouts has been nothing but positive. My son has been in Cub Scouts and is now in an active, positive Scout troop. His leaders make sure to provide a variety of opportunities for the boys and encourage each one to go for Eagle Scout. My son has earned numerous badges and while that may seem trivial, each badge represents quite a lot of work and learning into the topic. It has given him more confidence while also building his self-esteem. Argue all you want about the organization as a whole--the good it has done for my child is undeniable.
frayed knot commented at 6/9/2011 9:43:00 AM:
The reason that schools don't want to let you in for recruitment is probably not simply that they don't have the time. Since the Scouts declared themselves a religious organization in the 90s, it's unconstitutional for a public school to grant an endorsement to the BSA by letting you recruit during school hours. If there are schools that still do this (they don't in my area), they're leaving themselves open to be on the losing end of a lawsuit.
A school can allow the BSA or any other religious organization to use their facilities after school hours, but during the school day, religious groups have to stay out. Schools cannot endorse any religion, they have to be religion-neutral.
By the way, I have two sons in scouting (a Webelo and a First Class), but the BSA does not allow me to join as a leader because of my lack of religion.