ScoutingMay - June 2003

'This Is Only The Beginning'

By Valerie Wells

Innovative Scoutreach programs like the one headed by professional Scouter Philip Wright in Hattiesburg, Miss., bring Scouting to more youth in urban and rural communities.

A group of boys follows Philip Wright through a downtown festival in Hattiesburg, Miss. As he walks the streets smiling widely, the 29-year-Wright, like a Pied Piper, is joined by more boys at every corner.

"Mr. Philip, you know everybody," one boy observes.

"No, I don't," Wright counters, then immediately greets the next person he sees and begins a conversation in Spanish. The boys look at each other knowingly and shake their heads.

As director of Scoutreach for the Pine Burr Area Council in South Mississippi, Wright coordinates the effort to bring Scouting's character-building and leadership training to minority, immigrant, low-income, rural, and urban communities.

That he seems to know just about everyone in town is a reflection on his approach ("We come and meet you") to introducing Scouting opportunities to a community.

That means visiting a housing authority, church, or neighborhood center and actively recruiting adults and boys, Wright says. It's an approach that has added more than 3,000 new youth members to the council in four years.

As a result of that record, the Pine Burr Area Council program was one of 32 Scoutreach success stories recognized at the BSA National Annual Meeting in New Orleans in June 2002. Wright and 31 other Scouting professionals from councils across the country received the BSA's new Scoutreach National President's Recognition Award, presented to outstanding local Scoutreach programs (see sidebar).

Key volunteers

With a push from two local African-American leaders, youth circuit court Judge Johnny L. Williams and the Rev. Henry Craft; a $5,000 grant from the United Way; and $11,000 from Friends of Scouting, the Hattiesburg-based council launched its Scoutreach program in May 1999. Wright, a local youth minister with a knowledge of Scouting, was hired to head the effort.

Initially, Wright focused on two goals: recruiting strong adult leaders and then recruiting young people into Scouting.

The adults came first, starting with district leadership. The result, Wright says, was "a team of dedicated adults, from the clergy and the larger community, who wanted to work with children."

Serving as Scoutreach committee chairman was Judge Williams, who Wright describes as "the father of Scoutreach in the council." Williams is also pastor of the Truelight Baptist Church, the first church in Hattiesburg's urban community to start a Scout troop.

As the district commissioner, Rev. Henry Craft focused on unit organization, advancement, and leader training.

Other key committee members included Dr. and Mrs. Dean Cromartie and two school district superintendents, Dr. Penny Wallin and Dr. Tressie Harper.

The Scoutreach leadership, whose formation Wright characterized as a "template for success," was divided into two teams. "One group was charged with making sure we had the needed finances," Wright says. "Our second team started visiting churches and neighborhoods, talking to the community about starting Scout troops."

Dr. Wallin made sure Scouting was offered to every student in the Hattiesburg public school system. Rev. Craft organized new units with the structure needed. To ensure that paperwork did not scare new leaders away, he put together a team of volunteers who focus only on paperwork.

"In the beginning, it was hard to get unit volunteers," Wright acknowledges. As a result, he stepped in to serve as the first leader for most new units—the first adult Scout leader many of the new Scouts had known.

Eventually, community leadership emerged. Scout mothers agreed to serve. Then college students and young professionals volunteered.

Thelma Ann Bridges is one of the mothers who volunteered (she now serves as an assistant Scoutmaster). Her three sons include Joshua, 15, an Eagle Scout, and two younger brothers, 14 and 12, who are eager to follow their older brother's Scouting success.

All three boys look up to Wright, she says. "He is a good role model for them. He's fun and easy to get along with."

Meeting needs, finding funds

Sometimes a group of prospective leaders may be unfamiliar with Scouting, due to the lack of a previously successful Scouting program in their community.

"I tell them that Scouting works in any setting and is adaptable to every location," Wright explains. "During an initial visit to a community center or church, we tell the potential leaders how Scouting offers any young boy an opportunity to develop the skills needed to succeed in life. Then they tell us what their kids will need in order to make Scouting happen."

For example, many boys can't afford the fees, books, and uniforms.

"We go find the funds. We don't ask families for money," Wright says.

In addition to help from the United Way of Southeast Mississippi, donations come from individual supporters.

"That financial help has enabled us to grow, providing for troops' immediate needs and for future needs, such as attending summer camp," Wright says. "There's no financial strain to youth or parents. The only thing that we ask is that the adults come back and volunteer."

Basic registration fees are paid. Books are left at the meeting site and belong to the troop. When a Scout outgrows his uniform, he gives it back to the troop for another boy to use.

The Pine Burr Council's Scoutreach program is now organized into two districts, covering 17 counties in South Mississippi. And as of January 2003, the Twin Rivers District had 2,020 youth members and the Silver Cloud District had 1,010. And the Twin Rivers District had produced 14 Eagle Scouts.

To those youth men, the achievement means more than merely having earned Scouting's highest rank. They also agree to give back two years to the program, to recruit more boys, begin new troops, and spread a positive image of Scouting in their communities.

Wright emphasizes that Scoutreach does not provide a watered-down version of Scouting designed primarily for "at-risk" minority youth in high-crime urban areas. Informed parents in the communities served by Scoutreach are like families elsewhere. They appreciate Scouting's traditional outdoor-based program of character development and leadership training and want their children to benefit from the full program.

On a summer trip to Colorado with a new batch of Eagle Scouts, Wright was impressed by the group's sense of unity. They weren't boys from a certain troop or a particular community, but just Boy Scouts.

He hopes those Eagle Scouts will share and spread this attitude back home. It's part of the same message he tells community leaders when he first explains Scouting to them.

"It's about the unity of people coming together for the well-being of our children," Wright says.

"And this is only the beginning...the best is ahead of us, because there is always one more youth out there who wants to join Scouting."

Freelance writer Valerie Wells lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.

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