Scouting magazine Exit Reader Mode

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.

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

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 through 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

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:

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:

(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.