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Scouts Adapt During Pandemic

Scouts from Troop 162 in Jamestown are pictured donating popcorn to local police departments. Local scouting troops have had to find ways to stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Submitted photos

With children all across the country forced home from schools and away from their friends as a result of COVID-19, scouting organizations have been presented with a unique challenge — how to remain connected without being permitted to meet.

For generations, members of the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts of America — which are independent scouting organizations — have gathered for weekly or monthly troop meetings, while planning larger camping activities and community service projects throughout the course of the year. COVID-19 threw an unexpected wrench into all of those plans, but then again, scouts are nothing if not resourceful.

The Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the United States of America are independent scouting organizations.

The first step to take was one that so many other organizations have made during the pandemic — staying connected online.

“As soon as the shutdown started we went from in-person meetings; a lot of them kind of adopted the Zoom method,” said Nate Thorton, Allegany Highlands Council scout executive. “It’s been pretty good so far. A lot of units are getting pretty creative with how they are meeting and what they are doing. Our troops are still earning merit badges and doing what they can to be together virtually.”

Scouts from Troop 162 in Jamestown are pictured donating popcorn to local police departments. Local scouting troops have had to find ways to stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Submitted photos

While virtual meetings are not a perfect substitute for gathering in person, especially for hands-on groups like scouts, the meetings still serve an important role in keeping spirits up and communications going.

“When you saw pictures that were taken of the Zoom meetings their faces were really lit up,” said Alison Wilcox, CEO of Girl Scouts of Western New York. “They’ve been doing different things like cooking challenges and yoga sessions. They are working on their badges.”

One of the biggest goals of educators and group leaders has been keeping young people on regular schedules during a time when nothing is very regular at all.

“We saw the importance that, we really needed to keep some stability for them,” said Tammy Lachner, scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 162 in Jamestown. “We figured scouting was going to be that stability for them. So we got our Zoom up and running.”

Early on, scouts learned that there were things you can do and things you can’t do through a computer screen. Community service projects are a main component of scouting organizations, and with social distancing in place, many of those activities have simply not been possible.

“It has hit the kids in a couple of different ways,” Lachner said. “There are certain requirements, because each rank has a requirement. Some of those requirements, we just can’t meet them. We can’t teach them how to use an ax without being next to them. There are some things where we’ve hit a road block and we just can’t figure out how to do that virtually.”

Some boy scouts, particularly at the higher levels, have struggled to find ways of completing rank requirements with COVID-19 restrictions impacting nearly all areas of everyday life.

“That has been a real challenge,” Thorton said. “One of the main parts of becoming and Eagle Scout is that leadership. It’s not just doing the project by yourself. It is hard to do that when there are restrictions on how close you can be together, how many people can be there. There are a lot of potential Eagle Scouts right now who had either projects in the works or were preparing to start their Eagle projects, who have been granted an extension until things open back up a little bit more. It has been nearly impossible for some of the projects to take place just because of the nature of the projects.”

Changes in fundraising have been another area of concern for local girl scout troops, which rely on cookie sales for large amounts of funding.

“When COVID-19 struck they were also in the middle of their cookie sale. The cookie program is one of our main ways of raising revenue for the girls and the troops and the council,” Wilcox said. “We’d actually had a record number, a really extensive number of booths planned for the month of March. By March 15, we suspended all in-person programs, including cookie booths, of any size. We still had about $1.2 million worth of cookie revenue to raise at that time.”

Girl scout troops often begin taking cookie orders in January, visiting houses in person in addition to taking orders online. Cookies arrive in February, and booths are typically opened in March to add more sales. With the timing of COVID-19, troops were left with large stocks of cookies and no way to distribute them. “The girls had to shift to finishing the cookie program virtually,” Wilcox said.

Following along with state health mandates during the pandemic, many troops began running donation programs which allowed them to distribute cookies to first responders and essential workers. “Instead of people buying the cookies for themselves, people started rallying around the community and donating,” Wilcox said. “We ended up getting through the rest of the program that way.”

Through programs such as Cookies for Courage, scouts were able to partner with members of their community while still raising the donations necessary to make the organization run.

As restrictions have started to lift in New York and neighboring Pennsylvania, scouting organizations have looked for ways to adapt their summer programs and larger events to the new normal of COVID-19.

“We’re trying to put our plans in place, that way when we’re given the go-ahead we can allow people to come on and start doing some of those outing activities and meeting together again in some capacity,” Thorton said.

With restrictions lessened in Pennsylvania, Thorton said that smaller troops have made attempts to begin hiking again while maintaining social distance. Many of the larger group activities, such as summer campouts, have been shifted online as well, with scouts pitching their own tents, building their own fires and meeting up online.

“All of those things really helped feel that sense of sisterhood and support and connection that people really needed, especially at the beginning,” Wilcox said. Before they can get back to in-person camping and recreation, scouting organizations are awaiting more information from the state as phased reopening continues. Questions linger about what outdoor recreation will look like when it returns. “We know the girls need to get outside,” Wilcox said. “We have camp facilities. Can we start with families and households where they are allowed to be together? Doing hiking or camping at a family level?”

Silver linings have been found despite the challenges of adapting to an unprecedented pandemic. Both organizations are now more experienced at digital communication and outreach to their members, while there has also been a renewed interest on the outdoors in general.

“I think being cooped up for the past couple of months, there has definitely been an appreciation for getting out and doing things,” Thorton said. “I’m hoping that this will stay relevant and people will stay on the outdoor bandwagon and maybe kids will see the value that we’re bringing, getting them outside. Maybe they will discover that they have interests that go with what scouting has to offer.”

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