America's Boy Scouts wound up a 10-day mass gathering in Virginia on Wednesday. This year's jamboree -- which was marked by the accidental deaths of four adult leaders and hundreds of illnesses from a week-long heat wave -- attracted more than 30,000 scouts. That's about 8% more than attended the last jamboree 4 years ago. But overall, membership in the boy scouts has decreased about 6% since 2000.
Who are today's Boy Scouts? Among the attendees at this year's Jamboree was Ian Rosenberger, a former contestant on the reality TV show, Survivor, and for 17 years, an active supporter of the Boy Scouts. "When you're 6 years old and you're in my house, you're a scout automatically," Ian says. "My dad was involved when he was a kid. I was a tiger cub (at) 6 years old and (I) got started right away."
Like Ian Rosenberger -- now 23 and a scout leader -- most boys are introduced to scouting by their fathers, according to Gregg Shields, National Spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America. "To a great degree, if dad was a scout and had a good experience, he's going to encourage his son to be a scout," says Mr. Shields, who calls "dad" one of the most effective recruiting tools the Boy Scouts of America has.
And these days dad may be recruiting daughters as well as sons. Aarika Thixton, 17, is quick to tell people she is a boy scout, NOT a girl scout. "My entire family has been boy scouts," she says. "All my uncles and my dad were eagle scouts. My grandfather was an eagle scout. So it's a family thing that has worked its way through three generations now."
Technically, Aarika is a Venturer, a member of the only co-ed division of the Boy Scouts. At the National Jamboree, a group of Venturers distinguished themselves during a real-life emergency. When scores of scouts and adults became ill from the heat, the Venturers jumped into action, quickly turning a truck into a medical treatment facility.
Venturing, which is open to 14 to 20-year-old males and females, was started in 1998 to keep boys interested in scouting at a time when many drop out. "Scouting, traditionally in the teenager's mind, was looked upon as only attended by geeks or people that weren't so cool," says Dr. Michael Barrett, who serves on Venturing's national committee. "We now have many instances and high schools where Venturing is cool. And we have a waiting list for teenagers to get into crews."
Venturing has less than 300,000 members nationwide, compared to more than 900,000 Boy Scouts. But it is the fastest growing division of the Boy Scouts of America.
"Venturing opens up a lot of new opportunities that just Boy Scouts couldn't have. And it also includes the girls," says Austin Cliché, 16, who has been in scouting since he was 8. Dan Griffith, 17, echoes those reasons for becoming a Venturer, adding that the fact that it is "an older group of boys" with "a lot more experience" makes it possible to do things Boy Scouts aren't able to do.
"Things" like spelunking -- or exploring caves, rappelling off cliffs and whitewater rafting. Those are activities some girls like to do as well, says 18-year-old Rachel Speekman, who was a Girl Scout before she became a Venturer. "We don't go whitewater rafting in Girl Scouts. Apparently it's against the rules," she says. "All we did in my Girl Scout troop was shop, and that was not fun for me, because I'm not a very 'girly' girl. I want to do things like boys do."
Venturing has made scouting more popular with teens and given girls the opportunity to participate. But there is still a large sector of the American population that Scouting hasn't managed to attract.
BSA spokesman Gregg Shields says Boy Scout organizations are working to increase diversity. "We recognize that a growing portion of our population isn't Caucasian and isn't suburban," he says. To reach the immigrant population, the Boy Scouts publish their literature in 13 languages. Mr. Shields explains, "A lot of the dads who come from different countries don't have an experience with the Boy Scouts of America, so we have to explain to the parents what we do. We're also working very hard in places like the inner city. A lot of times we have to hire a scoutmaster, maybe a college student, and pay him a stipend to lead a troop."
Mr. Shields says the biggest challenge for Boy Scouts in the 21st century is competing with other activities and the limited time that busy parents may have to give. Scouting needs the support of families to succeed, he says, and many parents just don't have the time.