Between August and October, many new Cub Scouts vanish like so much Halloween candy. As the days grow shorter, Cub Scout leaders everywhere look around and wonder what happened to all those eager, energetic boys who signed up at school night.
Well, maybe not everywhere. Units like Pack 160 in Burton, Mich., know how to both recruit and retain members. The secret, says Cubmaster Julie Rencsak, is to get families to camp as quickly as possible.
“We go do a boy-talk in a school and get these boys all excited about camping and being outdoors and BB guns and archery,” she says. “In too many packs, the opportunity to do that doesn’t arrive until next summer.”
In Pack 160, the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors arrives at a family campout in mid-September. Held at a camp just half an hour from town, the campout is designed to be newbie friendly. The cost is low, the food is provided, and the flier tells parents everything they need to know about the weekend. Families can sign up at the last minute or just come out for the activities on Saturday if they aren’t quite ready to sleep on the ground.
The outing lets the pack deliver on some of its school-night promises. But, perhaps more important, it lets Rencsak go to work on the new parents, who will ultimately decide whether their sons remain in Scouting. “If you don’t have a commitment from the parents, the boys aren’t going to get [to Scouts],” she says. “You get the parent in the door, and the boys come along.”
As soon as they arrive at camp, leaders assign new and old parents to one of three work groups: cooking, clean-up, and program. This system ensures that needed work gets done and that new parents get to chat with their more seasoned counterparts during downtime. “You’re chatting with your group,” Rencsak says. “It gives you an instant opportunity to bond with people and find out some information.”
Parents of older boys love to share funny stories from past outings, and new parents have an opportunity to share concerns they weren’t willing to bring up at school night. For example, a mom might mention that her son has Asperger’s syndrome, giving experienced leaders the chance to connect her with another parent whose son was recently diagnosed.
Rencsak knows the system works. One reason: Parents who make new friends at the campout often ask to change their committee assignment—switching from the blue and gold committee to the pinewood derby committee, for example (in Pack 160, every parent leaves school night with an assignment).
But the campout does more than connect new parents with other parents. It also connects them with their own sons. The first activity leaders schedule after breakfast on Saturday is a parent-son hike. During the hike, they ask parents to go over the Youth Protection information in the front of their son’s handbook, which satisfies Bobcat requirement No. 8. “The requirement gets done, the book has been opened, and the parent and the boy have started off their Scouting experience with 15 minutes of ‘just us’ bonding,” Rencsak says. “If you can’t get the parents to open the book, the boy is never going to advance.”
Of course, not every family will make it to the family campout; these days even first- and second-graders live busy lives. If a family can’t attend, Rencsak assigns an experienced leader to meet personally with the family. “They will come over to that leader’s home or the leader will go to their home with the rank book and the join packet and go over any questions,” she says.
Pack 160’s attention to detail—and to new parents—has paid off. Since Rencsak joined the pack eight years ago, membership has grown from 20 boys to 47, and the pack now serves about 30 percent of the boys at the school where it recruits.
Rencsak says the camping program accounts for much of that growth. “If we can persuade them to be out there, they’ll be with us through the year,” she says.