'See You at the Games'

By Kathy Vilim DaGroomes
Photographs By Tom Sobolik

Soon after school starts each fall, thousands of Cub Scouts in New York's Westchester-Putnam Council take part in the Thunderbird Games, a Cub Scouting mega-funfest.

Cub Scouts of Pack 1, Lewisboro, N.Y., speed a rider along in a chariot race.

Take thousands of Cub Scouts—many of them new ones—their parents, and siblings. Put them in the middle of a large, scenic location with lots of games and activities, camping, good food, wildlife, and a safe environment. Add 200 Scouting volunteer staff members of all ages and another 100 non-Scouting volunteers from a host of community organizations. Tie it all together with a theme for an annual weekend of camaraderie, fun, learning, and entertainment, and what do you have?

If you're in New York's Westchester-Putnam Council, you have the Thunder bird Games, held in the fall soon after School Nights for Scouting are completed.

Steve Hammonds, director of support services for the council located in southern New York State, described its premier annual Cub Scouting event this way:

"For thousands of kids and their parents, this is their first exposure to Scouting, a tremendously positive outdoor experience that we hope will get them started on the first of many years in Scouting."

Variety is the name of the game

Last fall's Thunderbird XI Games, held on a sunny weekend with temperatures in the mid-50's, had a Superheroes theme. The event was located in a small section of the 4,500-acre Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, a county park in Cross River, N.Y. It attracted 3,600 participants: 3,300 Cub Scouts, parents and siblings; and 300 volunteer staff.

Games and activities offered variety, from the traditional (Kim's Game, Webelos obstacle course, three-way tug-of-war) to the practical (first-aid game, Jamboree-on-the-Air) to the fun (chariots, "sumo wrestling," jousting, nail-pounding) to the educational (pioneering lashing at "the triangle walk") to the physical (climbing wall, monkey bridges) to the entertaining (trained falcons).

Some games had a tie-in with the Superheroes theme. Those that were age-appropriate for Tiger Cubs were designated with a yellow flag.

Scouts and Venturers demonstrated skills such as outdoor cooking, lashing, and knot tying to the Cub Scouts.

Great time with parents, friends

Tiger Cub Holden Summers, 6, and dad, Brett, check out their tent.

Additionally, about a dozen city, county, and state agencies and organizations brought equipment for demonstrations and activities. Among them were the New York State Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, county department of corrections, American Red Cross, county police, the Con Edison utility company, volunteer fire departments and ambulance corps, the county SWAT team, state police K-9 unit, and the Westchester Emergency Communications Association (ham radio operators).

In one activity, volunteers from the department of corrections photographed and fingerprinted hundreds of the Cub Scouts for child safety ID packets that were then presented to each child's parent.

Heading the event for the second year was Col. William S. (Ziggy) Bernfeld, U.S. Army Reserve (Ret.), a past council commissioner and former council camping chairman. "See you at the Games," he welcomed participants in the event's preregistration booklet.

"I think the most important comment that we hear is, 'This was fun,'" said Colonel Bernfeld. "We hope the Cub Scouts' exposure to Scouting here will be a wonderful time with their parents and friends, participating in events, games, and things that they have never done before and have a great time doing."

Volunteers lend support

The Games started 12 years ago, when Westchester-Putnam Council leadership asked a group of Scouters "to come up with a large Cub Scout program," remembered volunteer Eileen Gleba, co-Advisor of Venturing Crew 2088, whose members staffed the games for Tiger Cubs at the 2003 event.

"We thought it would be a great idea to get all of our Cub Scout packs together at one event, and this was the way it came about," she said.

The Thunderbird Games weekend is designed for Cub Scouts, but leaders and youth from Venturing and Boy Scouting are also involved in staffing the event.

Cub Scouts from Lewisboro's Pack 1 watch their team members compete in a chariot race, just one of many fun, educational, and physical activities on the program.

For example, at the wooden centipede game, Scout Justin Angle, of Troop 165, chartered to the First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, N.Y., patiently explained to Cub Scouts how the activity worked. (Earlier that day, other members of his troop had set the activity up.)

David Talbot, the council's executive vice president during Thunderbird XI and current president, said, "Even though it's for Cub Scouts, the event involves Scouts of all ages, and parents, of course."

More activities handle crowd

Although Thunderbird XI started at noon Saturday, more than half the participants arrived earlier in the day to set up for overnight family camping.

The opening ceremony included a court of honor, at which Scout Executive Jack Sears presented a Medal of Merit to Cub Scout Niall O'Callaghan, who at age 9, in 2002, saved his nanny's life in a choking incident through use of his first-aid skills. (Niall is a member of Pack 1, chartered to the Katonah, N.Y., Rotary Club.)

Then the Cub Scouts set out to try the numerous games and activities. For better crowd control and to keep wait times down, Thunderbird Games planners had increased the number of activities from 28 in 2002 to 41 in 2003.

Answering parents' questions

The sites for camping participants (about 3,000) and locations of the games and activities, stage area, trading post, and snack bar were laid out with military-like precision and were easy to find on the official map.

Preregistering was simple, with each participant, whether staff member, sibling, parent, or Cub Scout, camping or not, paying $10. (This excluded Boy Scouts and Venturers who ran the game stations, and volunteers from organizations with exhibits and demonstrations.)

In addition to Cub Scouts, the council was ready for questions from the parents of new Cub Scouts.

Event organizers Denise Griggs, left, and Karen Boutross sport Superheroes costumes.

"In our registration area, commissioners answered questions and distributed a parent's orientation guide, for first-time new parents, so that they could better understand Cub Scouting," said Robert E. (Bob) Willett, the council's field director. At the end of the day, all of the orientation guides had been distributed.

By midafternoon, everybody, from the youngest Tiger Cub to the most mature second-year Webelos Scout, either was participating in a game or rapt in concentration at a demonstration. David Eppinger, vice president of program for the council, was clearly pleased.

"We hold this in mid-October so that we can get a good kickoff for our Scouting year, to really build the excitement and have Cub Scout families involved throughout the year," he said.

"There's a lot of energy built into getting ready for a big program like this, especially at the beginning of the year. We need to carry them through, give them that energy on a regular basis."

'Bring everybody together'

When the event's games ended at 4:30, boys, parents, siblings, and pack leadership moved to their campsites for dinner. Afterward, a stage show, with music and skits presented by Boy Scouts, Venturers, and the Thunderbird Games adult staff, entertained a crowd of approximately 3,000.

Later, back at their own pack's campsites, Cub Scouts presented skits, with lights out at 10 p.m. The next morning, after a religious service and breakfast, participants broke camp and headed home.

First-year Webelos Scout Andrew Kalmancy, 9, of Pack 1, Brewster, N.Y., chartered to the Brewster Rotary Club, was on hand for his third Thunderbird Games. "It's fun," he said.

"There's a lot of food, trees you can climb, and camping. You can pal around with your friends, play games with them, run around, and play tag and football." Cubmaster Michael Corvino, also with Brewster's Pack 1, has attended the 11 Thunderbird Games since 1992. He especially enjoyed the chance to "mingle with people from some of the districts you don't normally see."

"It's good to bring everybody together," Corvino added. "You learn new things, and parents get enthused...

"We brought 140 people here today. It's wonderful to have them see what Scouting is like, and you know they can share that back home with their community."

Kathy Vilim DaGroomes is associate editor of Scouting magazine.

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