By Douglass K. Daniel
Illustrations by Jim Paillot
Photographs by John R. Fulton Jr.
Knobstone Trail, its 58 miles snaking through rugged backcountry in southern Indiana, is a challenge for any hiker. Faced with narrow, flat-topped ridges rising 300 feet, no one treats the state's longest footpath lightly.
Weeks before Troop 125 of Carmel, Ind., takes on Knobstone, its Scouts explore the trailwithout carrying a single pack. Instead, they look over photos of the area and read about its terrain on a state-sponsored Web site.
Half a continent away in San Francisco's East Bay area, many of the adult leaders of Cub Scout Pack 215 discuss buying a pinewood derby track, largely by e-mail; they exchange ideas about this and other pack matters almost daily online.
Distance has no meaning under The Shade Tree, the America Online chat room for Scouts. Tapping on keyboards from coast to coast, veteran Scouters help newcomers find solutions to common problems.
"I believe the Internet is more important to Scouting than to most other groups and associations," says Scoutmaster Lloyd Dalton of Troop 28 in St. Cloud, Minn. "Much of the important stuff happens on the local level, at troop and pack meetings. Until recently, there has been no effective way to facilitate communication between volunteers at this level."
Adds Pete Farnham, a Scoutmaster and district committee member in Alexandria, Va.: "I find the use of Scout-related Web sites and e-mail to be almost uniformly a plus. I don't know how we got along without them."
"Last year, my troop went to Camp Rodney for the first time. ... I sent a message to Scouts-L asking what to expect. I not only got many very helpful replies, but I found other Scouters who were going to be there at the same time, and I was able to look them up at camp."
Jay Lenrow Scoutmaster, Troop 18 Owings Mills, Md.
Not so long ago, Scouters got along pretty well without the Internet. Packs and troops were linked, but not by home computers. Information passed from person to person through a roster of names and phone numbers. Council newsletters came once a month, maybe less often. If a Scouter needed event information, a phone call or letter would bring a brochure in the mail.
The greatest plus of Internet communication may be efficiency. Gone are the frustrations of conflicting schedules, phone tag, and waiting by the mailbox.
"The number of boys lost between Webelos and Boy Scouts in our district was nearly 70 percent. I solicited help on Scouts-L, gathered the replies, and published two 'books' in Microsoft Word documents. I told Scouts-L subscribers that I would send them to anybody who needed it. I got nearly 300 replies."
Erik Bergethon District Commissioner, Rocky Mountain Council Pueblo, Colo.
"Cyber Scouting allows me to look for information when I have time, to leave messages for people when I come in, knowing that they will have them the next time they check in," says Joe Ray Hawkins, an active Scouting and Venturing leader and Foothills District committee member of the Piedmont Council in Gastonia, N.C. "It allows me to operate on a schedule that fits my needsand my open time. It's a national database of informationand of people willing to help."
Essential to Scouting's online tool kit are e-mail, Web sites, message boards, and online chat rooms. As is true of other tools, they must be used carefully for the best results. Scouters should be ever mindful that information on the Internet may be wrong or not conform to official BSA policies and standards. Answers to questions concerning any BSA policy or program should be obtained from official sources at local Scout council service centers or from official BSA publications.
"Our unit Web site went online in November 1994. We have made contacts with Scouts around the world. Our Philmont crew met a crew of Japanese Scouts on the trail who recognized them from the Web site. It was quite a lesson for our Scouts on the shrinking world."
Alan Houser Scoutmaster, Troop 24 Berkeley, Calif.
E-mail and Web sites aside, Scouters really thrive on the give-and-take of conversation. Leaders used to wait for monthly roundtables, annual pow wows, or other council workshops, camporees, and regional and national meetings to seek advice from others outside their area.
Not with an online chat room. With his home computer, a participant can log onto a site and read messages as they are typed by others in the chat room. He can ask questions, read answers, and join in the discussion. A chat host keeps everyone on the announced topic.
"It's a live keyboard chat, an exchange of ideas," says Tom Jaworski, a retired Scoutmaster in Great Barrington, Mass., who is the leader of America Online's Scouting Forum, the largest on the Internet. "You might be stuck on a program about cooking for your second-year Webelos Scouts. You ask a question, and before you know it, you have a half-dozen people or more shooting back answers at you."
On the spur of the moment one recent winter, Scoutmaster Kirk Barley of Virginia Beach, Va., decided to organize a camping trip for Troop 378. But how could he get everyone to a campsite 200 miles away with just a few days to plan?
He put the trip together with e-mail, Barley says. "I had everyone confirmed, vehicles assigned, food and gear arrangements, and all of the other factors [such as a tour permit] completed in record time without disturbing my fellow Scouters' workday. It was a great trip."
Such speed makes e-mail the preferred method of communication for those online. Using multiple addresses, senders can easily reach scores of people with a single message.
"We have a district e-mail list for any parent or leader in our district who wants to be included," Neal Smith of the Tatanka District in the Sam Houston (Tex.) Area Council reports. "We announce training sessions, activities, updates, and other district information on the mailing list. It has proven to be very popular."
Other effective uses of e-mail for Scouting include
Mary Ellen Chadwick
"Units came to our Scoutorama that hadn't come in years because they heard about it through e-mail," Mary Ellen Chadwick of the Redwood Empire Council in Santa Rosa, Calif., says. "I am Boy Scout roundtable chair, and since I started sending out e-mail updates, attendance has doubled in units and tripled in the number of youth involved."
Similar to message boards, electronic mailing lists are specialized e-mail programs. When you join this type of mailing list, you add your e-mail address to a program that automatically exchanges e-mail with others. By sending a question to one address, you can reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people with similar interests.
Any individual or organization with the software and hardware can create an electronic mailing list. One of the most popular Scout-related mailing lists is Scouts-L, a service that passes around dozens of e-mail messages daily. Coordinated by Jon Eidson, a programmer at Texas Christian University, the list is archived at http://www.scouter.com.
Susan Schmid and her Eagle Scout son, Jeremy
"My son's Eagle project contacts came directly from Scouts-L members," says Susan Schmid, a committee member with Troop 40 in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. "He tried in vain to find an agency to work with in order to run a Kosovo refugee relief drive. Through a post to the list, he found that the New York City Fire Department would accept the items collected and arrange shipment to Kosovo. His project was a great success."
Sometimes just knowing that others have wrestled with the same problem can make reading e-mail from a mailing list worthwhile.
"I have gotten support and encouragement through many stressful situations over the past three years. I have learned a lot about all phases of Scouting and now feel much better prepared for my current position as district commissioner," says Pam Glidden of Kent, Wash., part of the Green River District in the Chief Seattle Council.
"I have collected files and files of information through e-mail regarding camping equipment, dealers of equipment, Dutch-oven information, recipes of all kinds, advancement policies, virtually every part of Scouting," Glidden adds. "Plus, I've made many new friends that I never would have known without e-mail. I've even met a couple of them in this past year."
Second only to e-mail for information sharing are Web sites. These Internet staples allow anyone to become a publishereven a broadcaster when audio and video are part of a sitewithout the costs of printing and mailing.
"Our troop takes a trip to Chicago almost every year12 or 13 times in the past 15 years," says Scoutmaster Mark Arend of Troop 736 in Beaver Dam, Wis. "Looking up information on museum hours, fees, etc., is easierand cheapervia the Web than calling long-distance."
Scouts use Web sites to provide information, too. Last spring, Troop 102 of Johnson City, N.Y., traveled to Niagara Falls in western New York. All the plans were made through the Greater Niagara Frontier Council's Web site.
"We camped at one of their council camps," Scoutmaster Larry Blumberg says, "and we were able to plan our day at the falls with just the info provided on their Web site."
Here are some additional Web site benefits:
Larry Blumberg and his son, Evan
"I get info about trips and their cost from the Internet," says assistant Scoutmaster David McCannon of Troop 328 in Danielsville, Ga. "On other troop Web pages, I have found information on junior leader training, job descriptions, and guidebooks that we used to write our troop's manual. Songbooks, games, camping recipes, the list goes on. The Scouts think I'm amazing, but it's the Internet that's amazing.
Although it is full of wonders, the Internet should be used with caution. A stranger's chatty e-mail, a great looking Web site, or a sincere message board posting doesn't always equal accuracy and honesty. Evaluate the source. Ponder the message. Then decide whether it's worth the paper it's not printed on.
"The Internet is just one source of information, and a source without any checks and balances on the accuracy of the information," says Roy Fisher, a district commissioner with the Alamo Area Council in San Antonio, Tex. "It is possible to get the wrong data from Internet sources, international and otherwise. Also in a program like Scouting, which is run largely at the local level, policies and procedures vary."
The Internet presents other concerns for Scouters eager to tap into the resources of cyberspace:
The Internet has no boundaries or controls. That's one reason it's so popularand a potential threat to safety and privacy.
Placing a roster of your pack or troop membership on a Web site is like handing it out on a street corner. Not just in your town, but around the world. On a Web site for a Scout unit, caution in recommended in these areas:
Unlike a chat room, an online message board isn't live. That's the beauty of it. You can read the board at any time and post messages at any time.
"When I was a den leader for Webelos Scouts, I needed instructions for a hiking staff," says Ella Gufler of Rialto, Calif., a Scouter with the California Inland Empire Council. "By posting my question, I received many suggestions."
You don't have to wait for someone to ask for help, either. You can offer it in the form of a message for others to read.
"One of the AOL message boards is for money-earning concerns. I have posted money-earning ideas on the board several times in an attempt to share with others what has worked in our pack," reports Jerry Bowles, Webelos den leader of Pack 152 in Adel, Iowa. "If you need advice about anything, there's never a shortage of experts to help you out."
"Our troop went on a Kennebec River rafting trip in Maine. It was one of the most awesome and 'wicked cool' adventures we have ever been on. I learned about it on the Scouts New England Web site from Scoutmaster Albert Rose of New Hampshire. He had posted a description of his troop's exciting trip."
Art O'Leary, Scoutmaster, Troop 11, Leominster, Mass.
For all of its virtues, the Internet is no more than another stepa big one, mind youin the evolution of Scouting. By conserving time and energy, online resources let Scouts and adult leaders put more of both into the good stuffbuilding character and having fun.
"The Internet, as we know it, was born in 1991. So in Scouting terms, the Internet is about as old as a Webelos Scout this year," St. Cloud Troop 28's Lloyd Dalton notes. "Many Webelos Scouts right now are relative beginners in Scouting, but they've got a lot of potential. I think the Internet has the potential to improve things, too."
Douglass K. Daniel, a former Boys' Life writer and editor, teaches journalism at Ohio University. Most of the information for his article came from Internet sources and contacts.
Spinning a Winning Council Web Site
Councils across the country have joined the Internet revolution with sites aimed at promoting Scouting in their districts. Last spring, the Tidewater Council in Virginia Beach, Va. (http://www.pilotonline.com/boyscouts/), the Santa Fe Trail Council in Garden City, Kan. (http://www.sftcbsa.org/), and the Northeast Georgia Council, Jefferson, Ga. (http://www.nega-bsa.org/), were honored with National President's Awards for Marketing Excellence.
These Web sites, and dozens of others that follow BSA national standards and guidelines, cater to the needs of their memberships by providing information they can use.
"You have to put time and effort into creating a good site," BSA national Webmaster Jim Shamlin says, "and the same time and effort into maintaining it."
Common qualities in top council sites include
Web Site Video Promotes Council Capital Campaign
When Hurricane Dennis swamped eastern Virginia in 1999, a torrent of rain washed out the dam that held back the 15-acre lake that had been the jewel of Pipsico Scout Reservation near Surrey. All a camp ranger could do was watch, through the lens of a video camera, as the draining lake turned into a muddy puddle.
The video of that moment is now a part of the Tidewater Council Web site, http://www.pilotonline.com/boyscouts/, available at the stroke of a key.
"We used that to stimulate the capital campaign necessary to restore the lakewhich we are determined to do," says Kerry Sipe, the council's Web master.
Some Favorite Scouting Sites
These sites, both official BSA locations and third-party sites, are mentioned frequently as useful destinations for Scouters on the Web.
A note of caution: While neither maintained nor authorized by the BSA, numerous third-party Scouting-oriented sites provide a vast variety of program resources, advice to leaders, and other materials. However, such sources can include content that is misleading, incorrect, or, worse, suggests activities that are unacceptable or unsafe by BSA standards.
Regardless of the authoritative appearance of any Web source, whether for Scouting or for a specific activity or practice, unit leaders should always check with their local council service center before formally incorporating such materials into a unit program.
Official BSA Sites
Unofficial Scouting Support Sites (and affiliations)
Council Web Site Standards and Guidelines
To gain national BSA approval and be linked to the national BSA Web site, all local council Web sites must follow a set of standards and guidelines outlined below.
These guidelines are also useful for building troop and pack Web sites, because they emphasize youth protection and caution against commercialism. For details, see http://www.scouting.org/site/standards.
Surf's Up! Check Out These Cool Council Web Sites
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