While traditional scouting programs for children and teens have seen declining membership nationwide in recent years for reasons including policy changes, Christian alternative groups say they are rapidly gaining participants.
Trail Life USA for boys ages 5-17 has become so popular that there’s a waiting list in Colorado Springs and other cities, the organization’s CEO, Mark Hancock, said in a recent interview.
“It makes a difference to parents to be Christian centered,” he said. “Troops locally are bursting at the seams. Some have had to restrict membership because there wasn’t enough room.”
Hancock came to Colorado Springs last month to tape a radio broadcast with Jim Daly, president of Christian media conglomerate Focus on the Family. American Heritage Girls founder and executive director Patti Garibay also taped a segment.
About 30 local members of Trail Life and American Heritage Girls, a Christian variation on Girl Scouts of the USA, attended the session. Called “A Safe Place for Girls to Grow Up as Women,” the latter program is set to air July 25, according to a Focus on the Family spokesperson.
The Trail Life USA broadcast, “A Strong Place for Boys to Grow Up as Men,” will air July 26.
Trail Life began meeting officially in 2014 after organizing informally in 2013, when the national executive committee of Boy Scouts of America announced it would admit openly gay youths as members. The organization lifted its ban on gay and bisexual adult leaders and employees in 2015. It has grown to 40,000 members in 50 states, Hancock said.
Garibay started American Heritage Girls in 1995 with 100 girls, also in response to changing values within traditional scouting.
The organization now has 55,000 members of girls ages 5-18, with nationwide growth this year at 37%, she said in an interview.
“Christian families are looking for heavy-impact curriculum,” she said. “They’re seeing great value in not just learning life skills and leadership but also growing their faith and identity.”
The structure for Trail Life resembles the 112-year-old flagship Boy Scouts of America, with troops, patrols, a handbook, uniforms, a motto, an oath and stages of advancement.
A big difference is that Trail Life and American Heritage Girls troops are required to be chartered through a church in the community, where they hold meetings and receive support as a ministry.
“We’re not just an organization that meets in the basement of a church, we’re an active outreach of a church,” Hancock said, “and we see churches growing because of that.”
More than 900 churches charter Trail Life troops nationwide, Hancock said. American Heritage Girls troops are active in 1,250 Catholic and Protestant churches of varying denominations nationwide, Garibay said.
With high interest, Trail Life can’t find churches fast enough, Hancock said.
“Parents are realizing the culture is not providing a welcoming environment for boys,” he said. “We’re constantly reminding girls they can be strong and do anything; that’s not the message for boys.”
In Trail Life, boys learn about “restoring biblical masculinity,” Hancock said, which “is not toxic masculinity,” but a view that is “helpful for both men and women.”
He defines biblical masculinity as “the pursuit of Christ likeness” and to “walk as Christ walked,” which is part of the Trail Life mission.
“Duty to God” has been a central theme of Boy Scouts of America since the organization was founded in 1910, said Jim Machamer, scouting executive and CEO of the Pathway to the Rockies Council based in Colorado Springs.
That phrase continues to be part of the scout oath that members recite at most meetings, Machamer said.
However, there is no requirement that a scout identifies a religious faith as part of his or her “duty to God,” he said, as “scouting is nonsectarian and promotes no specific religion.”
Conversely, Christianity is front and center in Trail Life, Hancock said.
“We’re not an outdoors organization that’s outside the Christian experience,” he said. “We’re at the core a Christian organization that uses the outdoors to grow Christian men.”
That’s why Colorado Springs parent Jessica Morgan and her husband, who’s in the military, switched their sons from traditional scouting to Trail Life.
“I like the Christ-centered focus it brings and that their values line up with our family values,” she said after watching the taping at Focus on the Family.
“It’s been a great family event, and the men in the troop have stood in the gap when my husband’s not been here,” she told Hancock. “The skills helped give our two boys courage, strength leadership and to face the hard things that come upon us.”
As with traditional scouting, Trail Life members say they like the leadership opportunities, going hiking and camping, being presented with other mind and body challenges, and developing character, Hancock said.
There’s also an element of risk and challenge, he said.
“They get engaged, they don’t participate to win a trophy; they participate to know if they’re handed something, they’ve earned it,” he said.
Making solid friends who challenge their faith and hold them accountable also were appealing to 18-year-old Peter Ward of Black Forest. He just graduated from high school as a home schooler and earned Trail Life’s Freedom Award, a capstone project similar to the Eagle Scout award.
One of his favorite experiences in the organization was backpacking a 32-mile loop at Maroon Bells, mountains west of Aspen.
“It will be a special memory for me forever,” he said. “Just being with all my friends was amazing, we were out in God’s creation, and the physical aspect of it really made the journey worth it.”
Another highlight of the trip was taking turns at leading evening devotions, Ward said.
“People could hear our thoughts, we could hear theirs, and we’d encourage and push each other toward Christ,” he said.To earn the Freedom Award, Ward and his buddy, Trey Shell, created an event, Airsoft Bible Camp, held in Black Forest last summer. It’s being offered again this summer. The pair led operations, finances, game play and other elements of the project.
The purpose: “provide for a relaxed atmosphere for men to fellowship together and pursue the Lord and have fun and be guys,” Ward said. He said he walked away with valuable lessons, including “you can’t depend singularly on yourself. You have to trust your team and be flexible.”
With failure or success heavy on their shoulders, Shell said he enjoyed the responsibility of serving as the administrative director. Ward’s role was camp director.
“We wanted to do something unique,” Shell said. “We knew next to nothing and took a leap in the dark,” Shell said. “There were many mistakes. But we learned and grew from the experience.”
The Freedom project, Shell said, provided the same spiritual support system, encouragement from peers and unmatched brotherhood as Trail Life does overall.
“If anyone is struggling, we have a network of people willing to mentor, guide and hold people accountable,” he said.
Boys Scouts see rebound
The decision to allow openly gay leaders, members and staff, coupled with lawsuits stemming from sexual abuse claims, a bankruptcy protection filing from the national headquarters in February 2020 and competing adolescent activities such as sports are attributed to membership in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts declining from 1.97 million in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020.
The national headquarters provided those numbers to The Associated Press last year, with COVID also cited as a factor for participation drops in 2020.
The Pikes Peak Council served 6,046 youths in 2019, its website said at the time. The Pathway to the Rockies Council served 3,112 youths through four programs in 2021, according to its new annual report.
No lawsuits have been filed against the local Pathway to the Rockies Council, Machamer said.
This year seems to be heralding a rebound for Boy Scouts of America.
Membership as of April 30 — versus April 30 of 2021 — is up 4.8% nationally and posting a slight .05% increase in Colorado, Machamer said. It’s the result of a fall 2021 merger of Pueblo’s Rocky Mountain Council and the Pikes Peak Council in Colorado Springs.
“The close proximity of the two councils made economical sense for the two to merge,” Machamer said.
He calls it a “positive move” that has created a strong organization to serve the broader southern Colorado region.
The COVID pandemic primarily affected Cub Scout membership, Machamer said, which serves boys and girls from kindergarten through fifth grade.
Some packs did not survive, he said.
“Cub Scouts mostly had to meet via Zoom, and after attending school on Zoom found it was hard to continue after several months of trying,” Machamer said.
But, “Some pack leaders were flexible and creative and made it work very well.”
Middle school and high school scouts ages 11-18 continued to meet outside and participate in socially distanced activities in cooler temperatures to keep programs going, he said.
Encouraging signs of growth include a significant jump in this year’s summer camp sign-ups, he said, and fall recruitment through schools and social media avenues is around the corner.
“This is a family program, and our goal is to invite every family to see what Cub and Boy Scouting is about,” he said.
Girls make up about 10% of membership locally, Machamer added. The national organization started accepting younger girls as Cub Scouts in 2018, and older girls were admitted to the flagship scouting program in 2019.
“We have had a lot of energized parents who are now leaders get involved because their daughters can experience this great program,” Machamer said.Members of American Heritage Girls also appreciate doing activities in nature, making friends, and exploring science and technology, personal care, ancestry and how their spirituality connects all aspects of their lives, Garibay said.
“We try to appeal to the entire girl because not all have crafty skills,” Garibay said. “Youth want to know what is right and wrong, and this is a great place they can discern that as well as vocations for their future. They learn lifetime skills for well-roundedness.”
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