June 4, 2011 10:30:00 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
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.