The New Brownsea Boys
How do you teach first-year campers the skills that will get them excited about Scouting? Learn from the staff at this innovative Maryland camp.
By Mark Ray
On a Wednesday morning last July at the Del-Mar-Va Council’s Rodney Scout Reservation, staff members Tommy Golden and Aaron Schilling told a group of campers about their Tuesday—a day they’d barely survived. Among the calamities that befell them were cuts and scratches, blisters, broken bones, nosebleeds, bee stings, both hypothermia and heat stroke (in dizzying succession), and an encounter with an elusive, bear-like squirrel that’s distantly related to the jackalope.
Not really. But Tommy and Aaron weren’t just telling tales. They were demonstrating, with humor, the serious first-aid techniques they’d used to heal their “wounds.” To show how he’d gotten sunburned while lying on the parade ground, Aaron flopped down on the ground like a beached starfish, covering himself completely in dust and dry leaves. When Tommy told how to stop bleeding, he offered this advice for keeping a victim calm: “Say he’s bleeding rainbows. That might make him happy.”
In between their antics, the young staffers—17 and 15 years old, respectively—gave some essential knowledge that covered every malady listed in the requirements for the Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class ranks. Appropriate, since their audience consisted of 17 participants in the Scout reservation’s popular first-year-camper program called Brownsea. It’s named after Brownsea Island, the site of Robert Baden-Powell’s first experimental Scout camp in 1907.
As the skit continued, Jeff Bedser looked on with amusement and approval. An assistant Scoutmaster with the Brownsea boys’ home unit, Troop 66 in West Windsor, N.J., Bedser shepherds them through their first year in Scouting. Now in his second year at this northeast Maryland camp, Bedser believes in Brownsea. “They come out of this program very well equipped,” he said. “They learn the skills well, they enjoy it, and they talk about it for the next year.”
That’s Brownsea’s goal. And to help move Scouts along the trail to First Class, programs like Brownsea can accomplish two critical tasks: integrate new boys into Scouting and get them to the First Class rank within a year, a key indicator of whether they’ll eventually become Eagle Scouts.
By understanding what first-year-camper programs offer—and what they don’t—you can tailor your troop programs to prepare Scouts for camp and later build on what they’ve learned there.
“The philosophy is to introduce them to Scouting and ultimately get them excited, passionate, and interested,” said Dan Masse, Brownsea’s director. “So much of what we do could easily feel like a classroom, and we don’t want that at all. We want them to be outside and having fun with their friends, which is what Scouting is all about.”
Masse knows firsthand how well the program works. He was a Brownsea participant in 2003 and vividly remembers his own instructor, Will Kramer, who was as loud and fun as Tommy and Aaron. “He was one of the people who made me want to be a Boy Scout,” Masse said. “Even when I was a new Scout, I wanted to work here.”
Brownsea made a similar impression on Rodney’s program director, Matt Keck, when he participated in 1999. “Everyone around me was having a good time, so it was pretty much impossible for me not to have a good time,” he said.
But Brownsea is more than just a good time. Like Scouting itself, it’s fun with a point—or, maybe two points. The first: help Scouts earn many of the outdoor requirements for Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class, as well as Swimming and Nature merit badges. The second: expose them to the rest of the Rodney program.
Those two goals neatly merged not long after the first-aid skit ended. Troop 66 Scouts, who called themselves the Shaken Bacon Patrol, were at the camp’s pool along with another group of Brownsea participants. Most were pursuing Swimming merit badge requirements, but a handful of others were working with members of the aquatics staff on more basic skills.
While Paige Kramer (Will’s younger sister) taught one group the sidestroke, Cameron Delestienne spent nearly an hour helping Jacob Polite learn to float. Near the end of the period, Delestienne told Jacob how far he’d come. “Those first 10 seconds, you were floating,” he said. “I wasn’t touching you. You were doing O.K.”
After class, Delestienne and Paige Kramer explained that helping kids learn to swim is their biggest reward. “Last week we had a kid that I worked with last year in instructional swim who wouldn’t jump into the water,” Paige said. “I worked with him for two days just to get him in the water. This year, he came back, and he had a blue band [indicating he’d passed the BSA swim test]. I thought that was a good accomplishment.”
That’s an accomplishment that should lead to others, said veteran staff member Woody Woodruff, who oversees Brownsea as head of the camp’s outdoor-skills department. “Hopefully, everyone who comes through here is going to work his way to Eagle Scout,” Woodruff said. “Brownsea’s just the first step. Here they not only take the first step, but they can see the rest of the staircase.”
They also can see Scouts who are ahead of them on that staircase. Brownsea staffers make it a point to learn their Scouts’ names, and they’ve helped many a homesick boy work through his misery. “They have to feel that they have a place both here at camp with us and in Scouting,” program director Keck said. “Some of them are still struggling to figure that out.”
Brownsea staffers devote mornings to teaching Scoutcraft skills, while the aquatics staff teaches swimming. After lunch, Brownsea and nature staffers team up to teach the Nature merit badge. Then, the participants take part in a round robin of activities that includes CPR, archery, rifle shooting, and open boating.
“If we introduce them to a lot of different activities, it can give them a little bit of direction,” Keck said. “Most of them walk off this property thinking, ‘I want to take these three or four merit badges next year.’ That’s what we want. We want them thinking ahead, saying, ‘I want to be back here next year.’”
Brownsea does that part of its job so well that first-year campers comprise only about 20 percent of the camp population each week. Rather than give up on summer camp after their first year, Scouts get motivated to return again and again.
Although Brownsea Scouts represent just a small part of the camp population, they are by far the most important part. “When we do scheduling, we try to do Brownsea first so we can make sure that’s set,” Keck said. “We’ll move other things around.” Recently, in fact, staffers shifted a Mile Swim practice to create a second evening opportunity for Scouts to work on the clothes-inflation requirement in Swimming merit badge.
That sort of focus makes sense to Woodruff, who noted, “We look at the Brownsea program as the future of Scouting. It’s where we build new Scouts.” And to build those Scouts, the program intentionally relies on staffers who aren’t much older than the Scouts they’re teaching. Troop 66 Scoutmaster Mark Lee said these young staffers “recognize that 11-year-old boys are still 11-year-old boys.”
The program also relies on word-of-mouth promotion from Scouts who have been through the program. Like Will Davis, a Troop 66 member who completed Brownsea in 2007. “It’s a really great program for first-year Scouts,” he said. “It lights that fire of Scouting that never really goes out.”
Eagle Scout Mark Ray, author of The Scoutmaster's Other Handbook, writes regularly for Scouting and Eagle Scout magazines.
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