By Kate McClare
First Class Scouts Tim Beerman and Tim Hooker struggled under the weight of a 30-pound Burmese python, its 10-foot length stretching across the backs of their shoulders. The boys' grins grew broader as the huge snake seemed to peer into their faces.
"I love snakes," said Tim Beerman, 12, of Troop 249 in Coral Springs, Fla. "That's why I took this class."
The two Scouts' snake encounter was part of their course work for the Reptile and Amphibian Study merit badge, one of 67 courses offered last March at South Florida Council's fifth annual Merit Badge College. Organized as a weekend camp-out at Oleta State Recreation Area in Miami-Dade County, Fla., with most classes at nearby Florida International University, the volunteer-run college offers a unique advancement opportunity to the council's 5,300 registered Boy Scouts.
"We wanted to challenge the Scouts to become more interested in the advancement program," said Sol Leiman, council advancement chairman and college founder. "The beauty of this is it gives the Scout an opportunity to work with other counselors besides the ones in his own troop."
"I think it's neat that they have it at a college," said Life Scout Ian Brelinsky, 14, of Troop 175 in Plantation, Fla. He finished three badges that weekend and got partial credit on a fourth and now has only five badges left to make Eagle.
Although many elective badges are offered, Scouts must be First Class or higher to take those required for Eagle rank.
Knowing that many lose interest before reaching that milestone, the college offers the Five Arrows program. It teaches basic Scout skills--orienteering, knots and lashings, ecology, fire-building, and personal and physical fitness.
The program gave a valuable boost to Second Class Scout Carlos Robinson, 16, of Troop 40 in Miami. He'd been languishing at his rank for several months.
"This gives you a lot of opportunities," he said, as he set out on a compass course. Before actually advancing to First Class, Carlos would still have to show his Scoutmaster that he had learned the orienteering skill. Five Arrows instructors don't sign off requirements, but only certify that the Scout has shown proficiency.
Nor does anyone promise that all badges will be completed at college; Scouts usually must do some work before arriving.
This year's college recorded 1,107 completed badges, but many more partials (1,755). "I'm actually more encouraged by the number of partials," said college dean Phil Johnson.
"That's how we know that the counselors aren't giving 'gifts,'" said past dean David Bergwall.
Produced on a budget of $35,400 (which was slightly exceeded), the 1998 college attracted 1,329 Scouts (including 411 in Five Arrows) and 341 adults from 89 troops. Registration fees of $30 per unit and $18 per person covered most expenses.
The $18 registration included four meals, a T-shirt, and I.D. badge. Scouts were treated to evening movies. Park officials waived their standard camping fee in lieu of the Scouts performing merit badge service projects.
A volunteer staff of 168 counselors and 180 support staff was led by nine chairmen in areas such as registration, logistics, risk management, food service, and classes. Food service provided about 5,400 meals, with color-coded tickets indicating unit eating times.
Johnson will run the 1999 college. He promises improvements, including an earlier registration deadline. "It's a tremendous amount of work," he said. "And to wait until the last second creates a burden on the staff."
Basketry couselor Donna Fresquez would love to see such changes. "The kids look forward to the college because they feel they are accomplishing something. But, they do need to be better informed of what each badge requires them to do before they get here, and the counselors need to be willing to give partials for badges that aren't actually completed. But it's a dynamite program."
Journalist and Scouter Kate McClare lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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