By Barbara M. Wolcott
Photographs by John R. Fulton Jr.
It's Scout Week in Madera, Calif. That means it's also time for the Sequoia Council's Thunderbird District to hold its annual Civics Day, a February tradition that began in 1925.
Individual Scouts are paired with civic officials from the city and county of Madera, the surrounding school districts, and the federal government. The experience helps Scouts understand how government works and what it does for the community. The event also engenders a closer connection between government and the people it serves, and it builds stronger support all around for local Scouting programs.
After attending a get-acquainted luncheon, each Scout accompanies his counterpart for three hours of on-the-job experience and learning. [Not surprisingly, the most popular activities are mock trials, mock council meetings, and demonstrations featuring the police department's K-9 (dog) Corps and the fire department's practice tower.]
Scout Doss Maxfield of Troop 118 in Madera accompanied County Supervisor Gail Hanhart McIntyre to the courthouse for a mock meeting of the board of supervisors. There, the Scouts sat in the members' high-backed chairs, while the officials crouched next to them, explaining how to run the meeting and coaching them on what to say.
Gail Hanhart McIntyre helps Doss Maxfield take her place at a mock supervisors' meeting
Doss had to sit up as straight as possible to see across the large desk, but he managed to work well at what Supervisor McIntyre described as being the "boss for the day."
"This is a great tool to get kids involved and teach them leadership skills," said McIntyre. "The schools have cut back on their discussion of local government, and while they talk about Washington, D.C., and maybe the state capital, Sacramento, they rarely get down to what government does on the city and county level. It's really good for these kids to know how it impacts them."
After the meeting, Doss said he enjoyed being the boss. He admitted, however, that before taking part in Civics Day, he hadn't known what a supervisor actually did.
"The supervisor told me we had a hundred-million dollar budget," he said, "and I got to help decide how to spend that money. Cool!"
McIntyre said Doss wasn't able to ask a lot of questions during the meeting because he was constantly receiving a flow of information. The Scout did, however, get to ask her about the process of the meetinghow things were done, and why.
She and Doss then toured the county clerk's office, where they talked about elections. They also went to the assessor and tax collector departments to learn about the role of those offices in the business of the county and how supervisors are responsible for the taxes assessed and money collected by those departments.
At the mock supervisors' meeting, Scout Tim Sullivan, of Madera Troop 116, stood in for his counterpart, County Planning Director Leonard Garoupa, in arguing why the board should agree to a proposed zoning change involving small animals. Then Sheriff John Anderson whispered his concerns about the proposed change to his counterpart, Daniel Steele, an Explorer from Post 104 in Madera. Daniel then went to the podium and argued that the sheriff's department would need additional resources for enforcement.
Sheriff John Anderson and counterpart Daniel Steele get acquainted.
Despite the sheriff's objections, the proposal was approved. "We've had complaints about smells and barking dogs," Sheriff Anderson explained afterward. "Without additional resources, we opposed the measure, but the Scout-supervisors passed it in spite of our protest."
As a member of the law enforcement Explorer post operated by the sheriff's department, Daniel didn't hesitate to pick a law enforcement official to follow on Civics Day. After the mock supervisors' meeting, Sheriff Anderson took his Explorer partner on a tour of department headquarters in Madera.
"A couple of our present deputies here in Madera have come out of the law enforcement Exploring program," the sheriff noted.
For more than seven decades, the Civics Day experience has helped countless other Scouts, Venturers, and Explorers with career decisions. On a less grand but equally important scale, nearly all participants come away better-informed citizens.
Freelance writer Barbara M. Wolcott lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Civics Day Made Easy
Chairman Fred Iverson says putting on a successful Civics Day is not labor-intensive, but it does require good planning.
Prior to the event, personal contact with city officials and department heads is essential. Asking busy individuals to take more than a half day away from business is no small request, but the rewards are great for Scouts and officials alike. Key personnelthe mayor, chairman of the county board of supervisors, the city managermust be sold on the idea.
Arranging for media coverage of the event can mean the difference between a yes or a no response from participants, because elected and appointed officials value being recognized for their community involvement, especially with youth.
In Madera, the Civics Day relationship with leaders is now firmly established, so Iverson only has to write a letter to 66 department heads in the major areas of government.
He begins contacting officials in December for the February event, then follows up with letters to the Scoutmasters and local Scout officials about a week later. In addition, he contacts smaller cities in the area, like Kerman, Firebaugh, Chowchilla, and Tranquillity. Scouts living in Madera are paired with city officials and those living outside the city, with county representatives.
Nearly half of officials contacted in winter 2000 chose to participate. Scout troops are given a list of positions to be filled for the day, rotating each year to ensure that the more popular positions are not always taken by the same troop.
The number of positions are prorated by the number of Scouts registered in a unit. Elections are held in each group to fill the number of allotted positions, and the Scouts chosen are matched up with officials as they make reservations for the luncheon.
Once the roster is complete, Iverson contacts each school to arrange for the student's absence. Schools welcome the program and express appreciation of the fact that it is a fine classroom for education in government. Each official buys lunch for him- or herself and the assigned Scout.
"It's a break-even event meant to help kids get more relaxed with government," says Iverson. "I describe it as a 'hands-on classroom.'"
Madera's program is scheduled for four hoursone at the luncheon where officials and Scouts get to know one another and three on the job.
When the day is complete at 4 p.m., Scouts are taken directly to their homes. A personal Scout thank-you note to the officials helps ensure the event is welcome again the next year.
Passing Down a Legacy
Many longtime Civics Day participants had their first involvement in the annual event as Boy Scouts.
William Westcott began as a Scout participant in Civics Day in the 1940s. "I went with the county surveyor," he recalled, "and he showed me the maps in the old courthousewhich is now a museum."
Born in Madera, Westcott is a longtime Scouter as well as a regular participant in Civics Day since he joined the auditor controller's office years ago. "Getting involved as an adult was very easy for me," he noted. "The department head deferred to me because of my involvement in Scouting. In addition to showing Scouts the auditor controller office, I would take them for a tour of the entire courthouse and sometimes other county buildings in the vicinity."
The Thunderbird District also tied the event to merit badges. "On one day," pointed out Westcott, "they can meet some of the requirements for several badges calling for a visit to a local official and learning what he or she does. I would challenge the boys to find out the amount of money the budget represented, and they were always shocked when they'd find out how many millions of dollars was spent. Even the parents were shocked to find how much it cost to operate the county."
The oldest former Civics Day Scout participant and still-active district Scouter at the February 2000 event was Ralph Baraldi. He first took part in Civics Day in 1936, the year he became a Boy Scout. He continues to be involved and is so dedicated that he came to the 2000 event despite having undergone quintuple heart bypass surgery only one month earlier.
Like William Westcott, Baraldi believes Civics Day continues to thrive in a changing world because "it's funand that's exactly what we try to make it. And it's also a learning experience."
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