Boy Scouts get tech-savvy to boost membership

Associated Press + More

By JAMIE STENGLE, Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) — The Boy Scouts of America is trying to recruit a new generation of kids to join its troops with high-energy, high-tech activities that include thrill-inducing zip lines at a new adventure camp, apps and a television show.

Wayne Brock, one of two new Boy Scout leaders named this week, told The Associated Press that the organization founded in 1910 has refocused on reaching children whose attention is increasingly pulled in a myriad of different directions by a host of alternate activities.

The Boy Scouts' membership peaked in 1972 at almost 5 million. Last year, they had about 2.7 million youth members, down slightly from about 2.8 million in 2007. Brock said the group has been working hard in the past five years to draw in new members, and he will continue that effort.

"We have a saying — 'the main thing.' When we say 'the main thing' we're talking about providing a quality Scouting experience to an ever-increasing number of youth," he said. "So our challenge is to continue to remain a relevant and exciting program for the young people."

An Eagle Scout who has worked for the Boy Scouts for 40 years, Brock noted there was a time when leaders thought Scouts should leave their cellphones behind when they headed out on hikes. Now, though, the thought is why not bring them along?

"What difference does it make whether you stop and identify a plant ... by opening up a book or do you bring up an app on a phone?" Brock asked. The school of thought has changed so much there's now an app for The Boy Scout Handbook.

Brock, who was named chief Scout executive, the top professional in the Texas-based organization, and Wayne Perry, who was named the group's national president, the top volunteer leader, also touted a new camp set to open next year in West Virginia's New River Gorge region.

When it opens, the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, located on more than 10,000 acres of forested mountains, will be the home of the national Scout jamboree.

"The goal is to make it extremely exciting. Make it safe, but make it perceived to be dangerous. We have some zip lines there that I guarantee you no adult will go on. And some climbing walls that are very safe but I think a lot of adults are going to say 'you first,'" said Perry, co-owner of the Seattle Mariners and chief executive officer of Shotgun Creek Investments.

Another goal is to inspire Scout leaders to make similar additions to camps back home. The key to building membership, Perry said, is "break through all of the fog that kids face today on things that occupy their time and get them engaged."

"When the world is such that the average young person spends an inordinate amount of time in front of a video game, what we represent is a change from that," Perry said. "Once we get them, they say, 'Hey this is fun.' Is it a great challenge to get them engaged? Yes. Do we have any trouble once we get them? No."

Michael Jargowsky, of Sea Isle City, N.J., who has been a Scoutmaster for 14 years, said he thinks the Boy Scouts have done a good job of evolving. Jargowsky noted a Boy Scout camp that has traditional activities like hiking and learning how to start a campfire now also offers such things as digital photography and robotics.

"If we do want to keep these kids — although they love the physical stuff — we also have to marry in the Internet with it and that's what the Scouts are really starting to do well I think," Jargowsky said.

Scott Armstrong in Syracuse, N.Y., an Eagle Scout who is den leader for a Cub Scout pack that includes his 10-year-old twin boys, said they recently went star-gazing with telescopes and used apps on iPads provided by the local council to identify constellations.

"While Scouting still embraces all the traditions and all the excitement of outdoors, it's definitely taken a good hard look at making Scouting relevant in 2012 and beyond," Armstrong said. "There was a lot less competition for kids' attentions and parents' dollars and time when I was a kid. Now we're seeing local soccer programs that start at 18 months. There's a lot to compete with."

Brock said the Boy Scouts also have introduced all-terrain vehicles and personal watercraft activities, and they're participating in a television show called "Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?" set to premiere in the fall on the National Geographic Channel.

One thing is unlikely to change: Brock and Perry said they have no plans to revisit the Scouts' policy of not allowing gays, a stance that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. The policy got attention again this spring after a den mother who is a lesbian was ousted in Ohio.

"We understand that no single policy is going to accommodate all of the diverse views of our country. We really appreciate differences of opinion," Perry said.

Brock and Perry along with National Commissioner Tico Perez, the top volunteer in charge of program quality, make up the group's highest level of leadership.

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