SUMMERVILLE — The Lowcountry’s first scouting groups to go co-ed say the change isn’t as dramatic as some might think.
The Boy Scouts of America made national headlines last fall when it announced a new policy that would allow females into the ranks of one of this nation’s most well-known programs for children and teenagers.
But the local scout leaders at the tip of the spear say the transition is going smoothly, and they're prepared for even more girls to join this fall, as the organization adopts a new name: “Scouts BSA.” Supporters say the change marks the start of a promising new chapter; others aren't so sure.
Both boy and girl scout organizations have faced falling participation and other headwinds in recent years, including Boy Scouts' grappling over admitting gay scouts and leaders. The organization faced pressure to accept them; once it did, other groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Scouting's largest faith-based partner, announced it would pull about 185,000 boys from the program and create a similar leadership program in response. Even financial support from the United Way is no longer the slam dunk it once was.
Legare Clement is the scout executive of the Boy Scouts of America's Coastal Carolina Council, which covers nine coastal counties, from Georgetown to Beaufort.
He said many families urged the program to admit girls stemming in part from the reality that so many girls already have been participating in scouting, alongside their brothers, because it's so family oriented.
"They want to do what their brothers are doing and get the same awards and recognition and things,” he said. "They were feeling left out.”
'Been here all along'
The co-ed change is gradual. The Boy Scouts of America has three programs, including Cub Scouts (for elementary school students); Boy Scouts (for middle and high school students younger than 18); and Venturing-Sea Scouting (an outdoor-oriented program for 14-20 years, which already has been co-ed since the 1990s).
While the organization won't official recruit female scouts until this fall, it did give some Cub Scout packs the right to accept them earlier this year.
Cub Scout Pack 730, which meets at St. Paul’s Church in Summerville, became one of these "early adopter" packs in January. “Testing the waters,” is how Cubmaster Tim Ray described it.
The pack draws girls from as far away as Bonneau Beach and even has one member who FaceTimes from West Ashley for meetings.
“I had a meeting and told all the parents, this is what we’re proposing,” Ray said. “We want to be one of the first units to take on girls. And all of the parents were like, ‘Yeah, that sounds awesome. They’re here anyway.’”
For decades, many sisters have attended pack and troop meetings, activities and even campouts with their brothers who are scouts, so the main all-male aspect to scouting involved who wore the uniforms and received patches and awards.
Still, Pack 730's decision was not without a bump: One family left the Summerville troop because it took on girls, Ray said.
Clement said some of the pack's girls have been photographed and could be featured in the next edition of the national Webelos handbook (Webelos, which stands for "We'll be loyal scouts," are Cub Scouts in fourth and fifth grades).
"They’re updating the handbooks. They’re not changing anything, but they’re putting pictures with girls in some of the scenes," he said.
Pack 31, which meets at Charleston Presbyterian Church, added girls a month after Pack 730.
“Officially, they’ve been here since February, but most of them have been here all along,” said Cubmaster David Deden. “The siblings do everything their brothers have been doing, and then every month they come out here and their brothers get their belt loops and they just sit here. Now they can be recognized for what they’ve done, too.”
Not completely co-ed
Pack 730 found it easiest to have the girls meet in separate rooms, but Pack 31 doesn’t.
Both packs have events, including campouts, that include everyone.
And going forward, local packs will continue to have the ability to decide, Clement said. If a pack's leaders want it to remain all male, that's their prerogative. That pack's chartering organization, be it a church or school or other civic group, will be allowed to start an all-girl pack, if the interest is there.
“We’ve had siblings coming along for years,” Ray said. “They just couldn’t be official members. Everything was done as a family — family camping, family activities.”
He anticipated girls like Katelyn Draper, 6, would join the pack.
“As soon as we could, as soon as it was allowed, we jumped on the computer and registered,” said Alicia Draper of Summerville, mom to Katelyn and Gabriel, 9. “My son is a Bear and she came to every single meeting and she was joining in. We asked her, ‘Do you want to be a Girl Scout or do you want to be a Cub Scout?’ and she said, ‘I want to do what Bubby does.’”
Draper said she plans to keep Katelyn in the troop.
“I know there’s been a lot of controversy,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people say they can’t believe that we’ve allowed her to do this, but we say, ‘This was her decision and if you have a problem with it, take it up with our 6-year-old because she will put you in your place.’ She’s very outspoken.”
When Ray put information on social media saying girls could register, the pack also picked up new members, like David Coffey of Goose Creek, who has been involved in Scouting since 1991, most recently with the Explorer program through the Goose Creek Police Department.
His son James, 7, is not interested in Scouts, but his daughter Autumn, 5, and her cousin, Mariah Woods, 9, couldn’t wait to join.
“There was no hesitation about joining on either end,” said Julie Woods, Mariah’s mother. “I let Mariah make her own decision and she hasn’t regretted it. She’s had an amazing time.”
The third-grader was the first girl in the region — all of South Carolina and parts of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee — to earn the Bobcat badge, which includes memorizing the Scout law and oath and mastering the sign, handshake and salute.
“I got it in the first two days,” said Mariah, a Bear. “I studied all night and I was afraid I would forget it in the morning, but I didn’t.”
Part of the award ceremony included painting her face like a bobcat.
“I kept it on when we went out to eat,” she said. “To me, it was a symbol that I exceeded my goal.”
While some of the girls said they tried Girl Scouts and didn’t like it, Sherry Johnson is the troop leader for her daughters Megan, 9, and Ashley, 7. Her son, Alex, 14, is Pack 31's den chief.
“I don’t feel like they should have to choose,” Johnson said of her daughters, and she isn’t sure if her youngest, Heidi, 5, will choose to join. “I never really thought that my girls would have more Scouting options than my boy.”’
Not completely co-ed
For girls and young women, the options will be phased in.
Girls will be recruited into Cub Scouting this fall, but Boy Scouting (for those ages 11-17) won't come until the first group of female Cub Scouts enters sixth grade or turns 11. They can continue in scouting, but at that level, all troops will be single gender, Clement said.
"It’s still going to be the boys on one side and girls on the other. When you think about it, years ago, a single church might have sponsored a Boy Scout troop and a Girl Scout troop. They met at the same time," Clement said. "This will be the same set-up, but both organizations are run by the Boy Scouts instead of different organizations."
Clement said most of the parents of scouts have been very supportive and welcoming of the change. "The concerns and calls that we get usually have been older folks who were in scouts or whose kids have grown out of scouts," he said.
"When it first broke in the news, we got calls from people who were very upset, but we got an equal number or more calls from folks who were very excited about it,” he said.
Even some skeptics have come around, he said, adding, "Once it’s explained more thoroughly that it’s two separate programs, that eases their mind a bit.”
'We're not threatened'
As for the Girl Scouts, whose national organization was founded just down the coast in Savannah in 1912, they wish the Boy Scouts well.
"We’re not going to say anything disparaging about them at all," said Donna Lee, director of communications and marketing for Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina. "At the end of the day, we’re all about serving youth and building a better world."
The Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina covers 21 counties and currently serves about 5,000 scouts, a number Lee expects to rise.
In 2013, it sold off its Camp Lowcountry property outside Moncks Corner, a historic home that needed major maintenance. Its $2.2 million proceeds from that sale helped replenish its reserve fund, and the group still has Sandy Ridge, a camp near Bennettsville.
Meanwhile, the organization has launched new initiatives, including a public policy government-civic engagement initiative. State Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, will help with that, Lee said, and veteran war photographer Stacy Pearsall also is taking part. And Lee noted the organization recently approved 23 badges involving either the outdoors or science, technology and math.
"We’re not threatened. We’re not nervous because our program is strong and getting stronger every day," she said. "We’re far more than cookies, crafts and camp.”