Game of Life to Eagle: Helping Scouts reach the finish line

Longtime Life-to-Eagle coordinators offer their best advice for ensuring every Scout comes out a winner.

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BECKY DORN THOUGHT she had seen it all. But the veteran Life-to-Eagle coordinator for Troop 876 in Carrollton, Texas, was wrong.

One evening about five Decembers ago, a 17-year-old Scout named Travis arrived at Dorn’s house to wrap up his Eagle Scout requirements. He just needed to check his records, finish a merit badge, have his Scoutmaster conference and do it all before he turned 18 — the next day.

Dorn pointed out the time crunch, but Travis was unconcerned. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have three hours before I turn 18.” That was true, she admitted, “but we all want to go to bed.”

Despite the late hour, Dorn helped Travis complete his paperwork and prepare for the other stops on his birthday-eve itinerary, and he eventually became an Eagle Scout. While Travis might not have learned much from his brush with last-minute accomplishment, Dorn certainly did. “That hasn’t happened in the last three or four years,” she says. “I’m on them quicker than that now.”

Preventing procrastination is just one thing Dorn and other Life-to-Eagle coordinators do. Each of them, in his or her own way, helps shepherd Life Scouts along the sometimes-bumpy trail to Eagle. A coordinator’s goal is not to direct a Scout on the road to Eagle, but rather to encourage him to make decisions ultimately leading to his success. It’s a position that demands both time, which many Scoutmasters lack, and experience, which most parents lack. But it’s a position that could benefit the older Scouts in your troop.

AS A LIFE-TO-EAGLE coordinator, you’ll typically start working with a Scout as soon as he reaches the Life rank. But just how you start can vary greatly.

Because Dorn’s troop is large — about 80 active Scouts — she holds semiannual Life-to-Eagle orientations for new Life Scouts and their parents. During these hourlong meetings, she goes through all of the Eagle Scout requirements in detail and fields any questions. After that, her first one-on-one contact might not come until months later, when a Scout is ready to start planning his service project.

Photo by Daniel M. Reck

Photo by Daniel M. Reck

Another large unit, Troop 677 in Glencoe, Mo., takes a different approach. When a Scout reaches Life rank in the 150-member troop, Life-to-Eagle coordinator Jim Keller presents the Scout with an Eagle Scout binder. “That’s really more of a security blanket for mom and dad than it is for the Scout,” Keller says. “Mom and dad have a lot of questions, and I keep referring them back to the binder.”

If your troop is small, you might opt for a more informal approach. In Troop 107 in Indianapolis, which generates about three Eagle Scouts per year, Life Scouts know to approach Assistant Scoutmaster Chuck Sparks, the troop’s de facto Life-to-Eagle coordinator, for help. “I don’t have an official title, as such, but everybody kind of knows you come to me,” Sparks says.

Becoming an Eagle Scout is the most complex project most Scouts have ever undertaken. As a Life-to-Eagle coordinator, you can help each one decide how to break a mammoth task into more manageable steps.

Begin by helping the Scout figure out which merit badges and other requirements he still needs to complete. He might be surprised to learn that he didn’t finish that Environmental Science merit badge or that he has only served five months in leadership positions, not six.

Next, help him prioritize. That might mean encouraging him to finish his merit badges before he tackles his service project (or vice versa) so he can concentrate on one task at a time. It might also mean getting him to think through issues like how the weather could affect his service project.

Setting deadlines is also important. If one of Dorn’s Scouts has several merit badges to go, she’ll suggest a schedule for when he should complete each badge.

Keller actually sets regular deadlines for his Scouts, asking each one to call him weekly with a brief update. “It may be, ‘I opened my Eagle book this week.’ OK. It may be, ‘I’m ready for my first review.’ That’s fine. But I need something,” he says. “Until they do that, I don’t overly engage them.”

How much to engage a Scout — and when to disengage — is an issue with which every Life-to-Eagle coordinator must grapple. There’s a fine line between guiding and directing, as Sparks says he has learned over the years. “I tell kids, ‘If I ever find myself working harder than you’re working, then I quit,’ ” he says.

BEYOND SCHEDULING and motivation, the biggest task most Scouts need help with is Requirement No. 5: “While a Life Scout, plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.”

It’s easy to exclude obviously invalid project ideas. It’s harder to determine whether a particular idea will pass muster with your district advancement committee. (Remember, coordinators do not approve final plans.) Sparks suggests focusing on these words from Requirement No. 5: “plan, develop, and give leadership.”

“I really pay a lot of attention to that,” he says. “How’s this kid planning this? Can he develop it into something significant? And when he does it, is there plenty of opportunity for him to give leadership?”

Take the classic example of building a bridge on a state park nature trail. The project would be valid if the Scout had to research plans for the bridge, solicit the materials, create a work schedule, and lead a team of Scouts and adult volunteers to build it. But the project would probably fall short if the park manager already had secured the plans and materials and the Scout and his dad could slap the bridge together in a couple of hours.

If that judgment sounds subjective, it is, which is why an Eagle Scout coordinator’s experience is so important. A coordinator can help screen project ideas that would most likely be approved by the advancement committee. But ultimately, the committee is the deciding authority.

Recognizing this scope and depth might be tricky for a new Life-to-Eagle coordinator after the BSA adjusted the requirements in 2011 to ask only for a project “proposal” (versus a detailed project “plan”) for approval before starting a project. Before this change, approved project proposals were required to include so much detail that a Scout’s project could be carried out without needing additional information beyond what appeared in his approved Eagle Scout Service Project Workbook (No. 512-927). But, as the most recent Guide to Advancement states: “It is inappropriate to expect a Scout to invest the time required for detailed planning, only to face the prospect of rejection.”

Councils and districts now approve a project proposal, which represents the beginning of the Scout’s planning process, explains Christopher Hunt, team leader of the BSA’s Program Impact Department. “Further planning necessary for success continues to be important, but it is evaluated as part of the project at the Scout’s board of review,” Hunt adds.

LIFE-TO-EAGLE coordinators should become familiar with the latest edition of the Guide to Advancement (No. 33088). Section 9 covers the Eagle Scout rank, and topics 9.0.1.0 through 9.0.2.16 are devoted to the Eagle Scout service project. But it is also very important to understand how the district operates and how its advancement committee works with BSA procedures.

Photo by Dave Clark

Photo by Dave Clark

Recently, Sparks worked with a Scout who was running out of time before his 18th birthday and was likely to miss a monthly deadline for getting his project proposal reviewed. “Knowing how the district works and knowing the people who were there, I was also able to tell this boy, ‘Call the district advancement chairman — here’s his number — and explain your situation. They will work with you,’ ” he says. The Scout took Sparks’ suggestion and was able to get his project approved at a special time.

If you’re just starting out as a Life-to-Eagle coordinator, consider asking to see completed Eagle project workbooks that have been approved or returned for revisions. After reviewing a handful of workbooks, you’ll quickly get an idea of what your district wants to see.

Although being a Life-to-Eagle coordinator has its challenges — including birthday-eve visits from 11th-hour Eagles — Dorn thinks she has the best position in her troop. She especially enjoys reading the statements of ambitions and life purpose that Scouts must write as part of Requirement No. 6. Often, she says, “I’m just blown away.”

For Keller, the highlight comes at the end of the process. “It’s sitting back after the Eagle court of honor is over and watching the proud parents and the proud Eagle Scouts taking their family pictures,” he says.

They’re photos that might never be taken without the support of the Life-to-Eagle coordinator.


Eagle Scout Mark Ray, author of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, writes regularly for Scouting and Eagles’ Call magazines.


The Life-to-Eagle Binder
You can head off a lot of questions by giving each of your Eagle candidates a binder with the following contents:

  • The Eagle Scout Rank Application (No. 512-728)
  • The Eagle Scout Service Project Workbook (No. 512-927)
  • Reprint of topics 9.0.1.0 through 9.0.2.16 from the Guide to Advancement (No. 33088)
  • Supplemental Life-to-Eagle materials your council or district publishes
  • Thumbnail descriptions of recent Eagle projects from your troop
  • A printout of the Scout’s advancement record
  • Contact information for the Life-to-Eagle coordinator and district advancement chairman

Did You Know?
Contrary to popular belief, an Eagle Scout project doesn’t have to result in something permanent such as a playground or nature trail; events like a book drive or a bicycle rodeo also can count. And there’s no requirement that the project be original or take a minimum number of hours, so long as the Scout has room to plan and give leadership.

There are some limitations, though:

  • Routine labor (a job or service normally rendered) should not be considered.
  • Projects involving council property or other BSA activities are not acceptable.
  • Projects may not normally be performed for businesses or an individual.
  • Projects may not be of a commercial nature.
  • Projects may not be fundraisers. Money-earning projects are permitted only to secure materials needed to carry out the project.

(Source: Eagle Scout Service Project Workbook, No. 512-927)


Five Tips From the Experts

1. Encourage Scouts to set a target date for completing their requirements, and make sure it’s several months before they turn 18.

2. Emphasize to Scouts that every step will take longer than they think.

3. Suggest that Scouts concentrate on merit badges first and then the service project (or vice versa) so they won’t feel overwhelmed.

4. Family Life, Personal Fitness and Personal Management merit badges all have requirements that take several months. Urge Scouts to get those requirements out of the way early.

5. Never work harder than the Scouts you’re working with.


Eagles by the Numbers
While many Scouts sit at the Life rank for a couple of years, the Life-to-Eagle coordinators we talked with say they work with the average Life Scout for six to 12 months. That typically includes an orientation, several months while the Scout finishes his merit badges and leadership time, and then an intense period from the service project through the board of review.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most Life Scouts who decide to pursue the Eagle Scout Award achieve it, although a few run out of time or simply give up. According to the BSA, the average Scout reaches the Eagle rank at 17.3 years of age.


A Youthful Perspective
In the past couple of years, Jim Keller has begun experimenting with having young Eagle Scouts work alongside him as Eagle mentors. “It gives them a chance to participate at a leadership level in the troop, to give back, teach, mentor and train the younger Scouts, and still maintain other interests and activities outside the troop meeting,” he says.

Among Keller’s first Eagle mentors was his son, Andrew, who spent the summer of 2009 working with a special-needs Life Scout. Two or three times a week, Andrew spent an hour or so helping the boy on his requirements. The following January, the boy became an Eagle Scout.


WHAT ARE YOUR TIPS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR LIFE-TO-EAGLE COORDINATORS? SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS, BELOW.

20 thoughts on “Game of Life to Eagle: Helping Scouts reach the finish line

  1. Having helped many Scouts along the Life to Eagle Trail it is always valuable to the Scouts if I help them learn to break large goals into smaller, clearly defined parts.

  2. Excellent summary of the travails of being an Eagle Adviser! I was the Adviser for about 40 scouts, and believe me, I experienced all of this. It is especially important to know the procedures of your council and district. Potomac District in the National Capital Area Council holds three “Life to Eagle” conferences a year, open to all scouts and parents and led by our district Advancement Chair, which is a great way to get everyone in sync.

  3. I sure wish the article had spent more time on how to prevent the 11th Hour Eagle (aka Cardiac Eagle) phenomenon. It is not fun for anyone. In my experience, it is a bad habit passed down from generation to generation within a troop. It is much better to pass along a tradition of finishing Eagle before you get to High School. If articles like this helped us build programs that encourage a Scout to earn Eagle by, say, 14, then most of the “move back” squares simply disappear. I recognize, of course, that there will always be procrastinators, but why extol 11th Hour Eagles?

      • I disagree in part. Scouts that earn Eagle before 14 have not truly experienced Scouting or had the opportunity to truly give leadership. Plus, what keeps them active and engaged in Scouting after obtaining Eagle?

        I never encourage my Scouts to advance quickly. While I do prefer they finish Eagle six months before their 18th birthday, I see no advantage to encouraging them to finish earlier.

  4. I totally agree with Mitch… However many troops have a policy of “only 17+” year old Eagles. (I’ve seen many leave their troop because they couldn’t earn it when they were ready…) Many SM’s are afraid the young Eagle will fly the coop, never coming back to the troop to “give back”.
    I was an early Eagle (as young as i could make it back in the 70′s, did 5 palms, worked on camp staff, national Explorer Pres Association, etc, still active… My middle son wanted to “beat dad” – earned it at 13 (about 3 months younger than me). His SM stated he’d never met anyone as focused and dedicated as Aaron, he’s now working on the Eagle equivalent in his Church organization and the troop says he can’t earn any more palms as he’s not there often enough. Frankly, the troop attitude has chased him further away as well.
    My third son is now back on track after getting frustrated and is almost 2nd Class.
    Make sure the Scouts EARN Eagle prior the vapors – fuel (a car – best is “no wings no wheels”), perfume (girls), sweat (sports or band), money (part time job).
    Encourage them to stay around – give them a job in the troop (i.e. JASM) and encourage them to get active with OA and possibly Venturing.

  5. Great advice, as always from Scouting magazine. But, the sub caption really bothers me: LONGTIME LIFE-TO-EAGLE COORDINATORS OFFER THEIR BEST ADVICE FOR ENSURING EVERY SCOUT COMES OUT A WINNER.

    I seriously disagree that if a scout does not achieve Eagle, the are a “loser,” or at least are not ” a winner.” I may be a bit prejudiced – I timed out on Eagle at 18 myself. But, I have been a a life long scout/Scout leader, a successful professional and family man and a “winner.” So have many of the boys I have been involved with who also didn’t make Eagle. I applaud those who do, it is a great achievement and an excellent target. But, our ultimate goat in scouting should be to help boys grow to men reflective of scoutings values and not just who achieved some singular endpoint.

    • I agree with your statement completely. I have seen several boys that did not achieve the Eagle rank but are still reflect the values that we try to instill in them. I have also seen some that have achieved the rank that I don’t believe have these values.

  6. Our First Son finished Eagle.
    Our Second Son dropped out at the rank of Life due to the frustration seen by the First Son.

    First Son (Eagle Scout) is now struggling in life,
    Second Son is now a successful honor student in college. He holds a job and commutes to college full time.

    Across the USA, extreme differences in scouting’s Eagle Scout admission processes abound. Council advancements are run by well intentioned but only minimally trained volunteer leaders. Some of whom are Eagle Scouts, some not.

    Many of the Scout Leadership Eagle Board volunteers base opinions on what they believe an Eagle Scout means. And that definition changes from one person to the other.

    Eagle Scout Candidates should not be treated as recruits in the Navy, nor should their projects be mini PMP (Project Management Professional) examinations. These kids are high-school Juniors and Seniors, not college grads. They should be able to have some flexibility and make some mistakes and grow.

    After 40 years around Scouting, I observe that the process of getting to Eagle Scout is as much about the individual adult-to-scout coaching that one family has vs the other. Sometimes in the same Troop, one Scout can take the high level of push needed, and sometimes the scouts push back.

    Some scouts are in heavily-coached families or troops, some are not. That plays as much a factor in actually achieving Eagle.

    I honor my second’s son decision not to pursue Eagle Scout as he likened the process to a video game where you had to guess what the next level was. At least that is was how the process was percieved in our County in Maryland.

    I now equate Eagle Scout with something like “All State” or ‘All County” athlete. Or even a large STEM project sequence. It’s an OK good mark in a young person’s life, if you get it, But if you strive for it and dont get it, can be a HUGE negative.

    Too many people start conversations with “Oh, Scouts…Did you make the Eagle?” … No. Hmmm. That is sort of like asking “Football… did you make All State?” or
    “Army… Did you make General?” I try to never ask any former scout if they made eagle or not. Sometimes that question is actually hurtful.

    The boys in our troop who had Dad’s to plan out each step of Eagle made it, or were willing to have coach lay out each step, on a schedule made Eagle. The others flew away.

    Frustrated Eagle,
    Dan R, near Baltimore, MD; Harford County.
    adult leader for 30 years after Eagle (1982)

  7. I feel very frustrated. Both my son’s Eagle Mentor and our Troop Committee are requiring him to put together and present a complete project plan in a binder before they will sign off on his proposal. They say this way has worked in the past, ensures greater chances of success, and they are unwilling to embrace the new approach. How can my son either get them to wake up and smell the coffee or work around this without going to another troop?

    • You should talk with your council office, They should be willing to help. If ever you have an issue that you feel is not being addressed do not be afraid to bring it to the council.That is why they are there. The other thing is also, Not saying your Scout master is correct, but having the boy do the work is part of the process. we also require our Scouts to prepare their project in a binder to present it to the Troop and Council board of review.We have a coordinator go over this but it is ultimately the Scouts job to make the preparations to show their project. It does work, we find in our troop that it works well. If the boys take the extra step to present a well put together presentation they tend to know what is expected of them better. And it also prepares them for working for people in the real world. being able to put together a project and present it in a professional manner is part of what we are trying to teach them.

    • Dear WR,
      Yes, talk with your Council office. This is an example of how a District committe sets it’s own rules based on the way it always has been done.

      It’s also an example of how different groups interperet different words and concepts.

      A proposal should be just that, a proposed set of ideas about work to be done. He is not bidding on a government contract and does not need a whole statement of work to be prepared yet.

      A ‘complete’ plan means different things to different people. The Eagle Scout Workbook has good guidelines, and a fill-in-the-page approach.

      IF it is a typical building or cleaning effort, I’d recommend to add photos of the concept project before the service project is done, and a sketch of what will be in effect after the project is done.

      Dan R.
      Harford County (Near Baltiomre) Maryland.

  8. “Helping Scouts reach the finish line”
    Now you are perpetuating the idea the BSA has been fighting for a long time – Eagle Scout shouldn’t be the finish line!
    Especially for the Scouts at the younger end of earning Eagle, there is much more to do.

  9. The Rank of Eagle is a Journey, not a destination. It is the combined effort of the boy, the parent and the Scout leader. I’ve served as a leader in the Scouting program for over 15 years and experienced the procrastinator and the early Eagle.
    My opinion is that a well planned program (with support of the aforementioned) starting with 11 year old scouts will produce Eagle candidates at the age of 14 to 16. If the program is run properly these boys have been leading at the capacity they are able to handle. I see no problem with advancing at a pace they are comfortable with as there is greater opportunity for adventure after achieving the rank of Eagle.
    Once they turn 14 they can be registered as both a Varsity and Venturing Scout where they will apply much of what they learned as a Boy Scout on a higher level with more high adventure activities. These activities are age appropriate and engage the boys.
    What retains a boys interest in scouting is a strong program where he has been given true leadership opportunities as opposed to puppet leadership that has been traditionally practiced. The youth are amazing and have great ideas if we will get out of the way and let them lead…with some guidance.
    I have Calendars and activity ideas I am happy to share with anyone who wants them.
    My hat is off to anyone who gives sincere time to the scouting movement in helping boys become better leaders. After all, that is what it’s all about.

    Thanks!

  10. I wanted to comment on the reply that said a Scout earning Eagle before 14 has not truly experienced Scouting. How does one define “truly experiencing”? My son is 12 now (June birthday) and a Star Scout. He plays to have his Life rank by November / December, and then Eagle before his 13th birthday. That’s no push on my part, nor my wife’s. We support him and help guide him in any way we can, but it’s all on him.

    He’s completed somewhere in the realm of 21 merit badges, has 3 Eagle’s in progress and 3 to go. He’s been a Patrol Leader, Den Chief, ASPL and for a week of Provisional camp was elected SPL by Scouts he didn’t know in advance. Seems to me he has experienced Scouts and has had the opportunity to give leadership. In his first year and half of Scouts he has attended every campout, even if he didn’t stay overnight at them all, was elected by his peers to OA, and done lots of Service Work with various groups, and organizations.

    I haven’t encouraged my son to get Eagle as quick as possible, but I sure am not discouraging. If he wants to do it then he should go for it. Is every Scout going to fit that bill? No, but neither will every Scout fit the “just before 18″ billing. We as adults, families, and Scouters should look to support and grow each Scout as an individual, not a template.

    Lastly, we’ve talked at great lengths and often about what happens once he gets Eagle. My son already has plans to join Venturing crew, plan some troop high adventures for younger Scouts, and continue camping to pass along skills he has learned. He looks forward to hopefully attending NOAC next year and going to Philmont and other High Adventure bases that he can’t because he is too young still.

  11. “Helping Scouts reach the finish line”!?! What?!? Eagle Scout is not the finish line! The rank of Eagle is not the “final level” in the game of Scouting. Once you achieve it, you’ve not “won,” “beaten” or “finished” the game. There is still much more to the game beyond Eagle. You’re perpetuating the notion that once a Scout hits Eagle he’s done with the program, he’s finished. Eagle Scout shouldn’t be the finish line! Stop this idea and you’ll improve the program. Getting a Scout to Eagle is not the goal or objective of the program; advancement, after all, is just one of the eight methods of Scouting.

  12. I just read the blog about wearing one’s merit badge sash on one’s belt. I’m surprised no one mentioned the picture of the pocket with both an Eagle pin and an Eagle square knot.

  13. I’m glad that I am not in the minority thinking that BSA and parents-at-large seem to be qualifying the Eagle rank as a token of participation. This is the first I’ve heard of “Life to Eagle Coordinators,” and was dumbfounded. I’ve got ~30 LtE Coordinators in my troop – they’re called SCOUTS! If they want to coordinate their way to Eagle, I’ll gladly help them and do whatever I can to mentor and guide them (my own son included). If they just enjoy camping, living the values of a scout, keeping good company, and doing some fun stuff, I’ll provide the vehicle for that as well. The only “requirements” are those mandated by BSA; there is no age requirement. The requirements are plainly listed in each scout’s handbook. I truly do not understand the need for direct adult supervision of a simple, clearly worded checklist that already exists in a BSA publication. Troops that are mandating additional requirements should be reported to their council and visited regularly by their commissioner. I do agree that a 12 or 13 year-old Eagle is most likely (there are probably exceptions) not mature enough to understand and value his accomplishment and was more than likely pushed along and attended many of the wildly popular merit badge academies that now exist (not a fan of those either, but that’s another subject) to complete requirements. I’m 42 and an Eagle Scout. I have met and worked with folks that were Eagles as well, but didn’t know we had that accomplishment in common initially. I was never surprised to learn that any of them were Eagles. I have been surprised as of late, however, at some of the young men (~13ish) strutting around summer camp, flaunting and taunting their rank to older scouts wearing Star and Life ranks. Clearly these young men are not living the loyal/helpful/friendly/courteous/kind/cheerful points of the scout law in their daily lives…

  14. I’ve learned a lot just by reading comments from this post and your post made us share our thoughts and experiences about scouts. Hope there are many others like you out there. I am also trying to work on some scout forms here http://goo.gl/MuFXiN Good thing I came across your blog to find more information. Thank you Mark!

  15. I noticed a lot of talk about what happens when a boy gets Eagle early, how many boys simply stop caring and leave the troop, whether its through boredom or the sense that they’ve done all they came to do. From my personal experience (I made Eagle at 15) its all about how you push yourself. Scouting is a journey, and one that has its challenges. Whether you make Eagle or not, Scouting is all about the fun you have and the distances you cover on your trail. If you really want it then I say go for it, heck go full speed ahead if you want too, but remember priorities. Enjoy life, have fun on activities…its not a race, its not even a marathon; its a trek with no finish line in sight that you will carry with you the rest of your life. Let your scouts know that; encourage them that the program is all about having fun, and the ranks and badges will follow suit.

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