Retaining Scouts in Philadelphia with an urban camporee

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The numbers were in, and they weren’t good.

The Cradle of Liberty Council had recruited close to 1,700 kids to participate in its efforts to bring Scouting into Philadelphia’s urban areas as part of a program the council calls Scoutreach.

But of those 1,700 boys, not a single Cub Scout-age youth had transitioned to a traditional Cub Scout unit.

“For Boy Scouts, we did much better,” says council board member Peter Walts. “There were four.”

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 4-for-1,700.

It was like a great movie with a terrible ending. The council’s team was doing a tremendous job of recruiting kids from urban Philadelphia. And then …

“We spent so much time, money and effort to introduce a first-grader to Scouting all the way up to the fifth grade through Scoutreach, and then we left them at the door,” Walts says.

The solution? The Philadelphia Encampment, an annual urban camporee in the heart of the city that includes both urban youth and suburban Scouts from traditional units.

Of the 107 urban youth who stayed overnight at the first Philadelphia Encampment in the fall of 2013, 30 crossed over into Boy Scout troops. Interest was so strong that a new troop was created: Troop 224 in Upper Darby Township.

Those are some numbers the council can live with.

Here’s how it all worked out, in the words of those who made it happen.

Darryl Irizarry, Scoutreach director, Cradle of Liberty Council: Philadelphia has a lot of Scouting history. We came to the conclusion that we wanted to reinvigorate the community by bringing Scouting back into the city. There were some events that had Philadelphia in the name, but they were all held outside of Philadelphia. There had not been a camporee inside the city in more than 30 years.

John Lavery, executive director of Lighthouse Field in the West Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia: There is no Latina mother who is going to let her child go two hours away to the Poconos to go camping with someone she doesn’t really know. The kids I work with have never seen a Boy Scout in their lives. I said, “Why don’t you use my field?” I call it “the woods in the hood.” You have no idea you’re in the city. We’ve got woods. We’ve got grass. We view the field as a safe haven. It’s fenced in. You don’t have to worry about some of the things you have to worry about at other parks in Philadelphia.

Peter Walts, chairman of the Philadelphia Encampment: I didn’t know how to pull this off. I’m a marketing guy from the suburbs who looks like an old Scout. I needed youth and energy.

Brian Wallace, camp director of the Philadelphia Encampment: I received a call … they said they wanted me to help plan it and to be camp director. I knew I wanted to be a part of this. It was close to my heart. We had to let these inner-city Scouts experience what traditional troops have done, and then match them up with traditional units. That’s exactly what this event does. We got about 100 urban kids camping here. They can have the camping experience, and they will have the opportunity from when they first join the Scoutreach program to get to Eagle Scout just like I did.

P.W.: It’d be a shame for all these kids who are camping for the first time to say they’re camping for the last time. Our troops, if they’re going to survive, need those kids. And those kids, if they’re going to move up in Scouting, need those troops. So we let the Scoutmasters get up and pitch these kids on joining their troop. It’s like a job fair, except this is a Scout fair.

D.I.: People in this community cannot relate to Boy Scouts at all. It is not ingrained in the culture. It is not something that the community has embraced because it was not made available to them. Now we’re going into those various communities that we have not done a good job of marketing to. With these kids actually experiencing a campout within the city not too far from their very own neighborhood, it’s a huge experience for them with memories that will last a lifetime.

B.W.: We know where the kids are located. We have their parents here. We say, “This is the program we offer, and here’s how we can match them up with a troop.” When they complete Scoutreach, that’s not the end. They know where a local Scout troop is so they can join and continue with their advancement. Scoutreach is the introduction. Then they continue with traditional Scouting.

Mike Kaufman, Scout Executive, Cradle of Liberty Council: Out on that field, it didn’t matter whether you were a brand-new Scout without the first patch on your uniform or if you were an Eagle Scout with a tremendous amount of merit badges, we all felt like no one was above anyone else. We were all out there for a fun Scouting experience. I think that gave our urban Scouts the idea that we’re all here to have a great time.

Bob Trejo, Scoutmaster, Troop 98, Whitpain Township, PA.: We’re a suburban troop really into pioneering,
and they asked us to come get involved. It’s a really positive influence on our boys. They don’t realize they’re doing service. They’re just having a good time. We tell our boys who are running these events to make sure the participants have a success path. If they’ve done it, let them do it. If they’ve never done it, just help them along. We think it’s important for them to succeed in getting it done. We want them to walk away thinking, “That’s something we can do.”

Dana Brown, 12-YEAR-OLD Boy Scout: We’re out here trying to have fun and do some bonding. Trying to get our books checked off so we can make it to Eagle Scout. Hopefully we’ll grow stronger as a troop and as a family. Boy Scouts is a way of helping people grow into better people. Like me and one of my friends here — we didn’t know each other at first, then we joined Boy Scouts. Now he’s one of my best friends.

DeShawn Walker, 11-year-old Boy Scout: I’ve been a Cub Scout for three years. We get to go on trips. We learn new things every time. I learned how to set up a tent. It was my first time ever going camping. It was my first time to have a chance to do it.

J.L.: This is a very impoverished area. These are poor families that have the same goals and aspirations for their families as everybody else. They just have limited resources. There are not a lot of safe places for children to be. Families are very protective of their children, and they don’t let them play in the street. You can’t ride your bike. The parks aren’t safe. Scouting is one way we can introduce them to a contained, safe place where their kids can play.

M.K.: We have shown Scouters and Scout parents what we could do. We showed the Philadelphia community as a whole that Scouting has no boundaries. We will find a way to make it a safe and fun environment. So many people came out and said, “Wow, we didn’t even know you guys could do this.” It was fun for them to see a typical Boy Scout experience that is normally in an outlying area, and we pulled off a similar experience in the heart of Philadelphia. Immediately when it was over with, we had a lot of people say, “Well, we certainly hope you’re going to do it again.” We knew we had a good thing then.

Getting To Know Brian Wallace

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Age: 35

Role in Scouting: Eagle Scout, Scoutmaster of Troop 358 in Philadelphia and camp director of the Philadelphia Encampment.

Day jobs: Principal, Morton McMichael Elementary School in Philadelphia; minister, Grace Baptist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. Also worked as a teacher for eight years and a vice principal for four years.

On why he chose the education field: “When I worked at Treasure Island Boy Scout camp, I loved teaching merit badges. I just loved teaching. All of the leadership skills I learned in our Scout troop, as a camp staff member and as [an Order of the Arrow] lodge chief are the same skills I use to educate kids every day.”

On the significance of the Philadelphia Encampment: “There were thousands of Scouts who could potentially end up in traditional units. Scoutreach does well, but the missing link was a program like this one to bridge the two. We needed to let people see how great Scouting is.”

Photos from the Philadelphia Encampment

6 Comments

    • looks like he is a Webelos Scout, so should epaulets are ok. And socks for an outdoor activity I see nothing wrong with, it’s not a parade. Pencil in pocket, he’s prepared to write and why did BSA put the pencil slot there if not usable?

    • Picky, picky, picky. “A Scout is Trustworthy”. Why even worry about “photoshop”? The boy is a Scout. He is “Scouting”. Keep the writing implement, he is thereby more prepared than most. Blue tabs? Green tabs? He is transitioning. Give him some applause for “daring” to be a Scout!

  1. The sooner Councils recognize that there are qualities as well as challenges that make urban Scouting significantly different from suburban or rural Scouting, the more successful programs will be at reaching and retaining families of Scouts in major urban hubs. Untapped potential, my friends. ..untapped promise!

  2. Great story. I am surprised that numbers of scouts in Philadelphia dropped so much since 1990’s when I was there as an Unit Commissioner, Unit Leader, and OA Advisor. Scoutreach is a great program. Best wishes to the council.

  3. I grew up in Southwest Philadelphia in the 60’s and 70’s. At that time we had not one but TWO inner city camps, Shawmont Wilderness and Breyer Training Area. Both were accessible by public transportation. Our inner city troop would get to Shawmont any way we could. Both areas were sold off. It’s great to see this getting attention as the kids in the city need it badly. – John McGlinchey, Eagle Scout, 1973 from Troop 543, Philadelphia Council, BSA

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