Local reaction to Boy Scouts' decision to welcome girls mirrors national response

Local reaction to Boy Scouts' decision to welcome girls mirrors national response

October 16th, 2017 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Sgt. 1st Class David Knopp talks in April to Girl Scout troop 40202 who delivered donated cookies to the National Guard Armory. Local Girl Scout leaders say they think their single-gender program is better for girls after the Boy Scouts of America announced last week it would begin admitting girls in programs for young children.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

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Thomas Nelson, of Athens, Tenn., is in a perfect position to talk about the Boy Scouts of America's decision to let in girls.

He has a foot in each camp: His 8-year-old twins, Riley and Rhiannon, are in Cub Scouts and Brownies, and he volunteers with both organizations.

Speaking Friday night by phone from Gee Creek Campground in Delano, Tenn., where his daughter's troop was having a campout, Nelson said he's seen positive initial reaction.

"I think the people in the Scouting community and the parents, especially in our area, they seem open to it," Nelson said.

Working parents and crammed schedules often means girls are brought along to their brothers' scouting activities. Now girls will be able to get credit — and earn badges — for things they are already doing, he said.

At a district meeting last week, he said, a Cub Scout leader recounted going to a local school to recruit new members.

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"Normally, they separate boys and girls but he spoke to the whole classroom," Nelson said. "He had a whole classroom full of girls saying, 'Sign me up!'"

That doesn't mean girls shouldn't have their own separate program, though, Nelson said.

"You'll have those girls that, when they're able to join, they'll want to do that, but you'll also have girls that don't want to be in there with the boys and just want that Girl Scout experience," he said. "If my daughter wanted to, it would be all right with me, but she's told me she does not."

The Boy Scouts of America announced Wednesday it would begin admitting girls to programs previously closed to them, including the top rank of Eagle Scout.

It said individual scout groups in younger ranks would remain single-gender, and the churches, civic organizations and other chartering agencies would be able to decide whether to admit girls.

Supporters praised the move for opening up more opportunities for girls, but defenders of the Girl Scouts' separate program pointed to shrinking enrollment in the Boy Scouts and worried about poaching.

Local leaders in both organizations say they work well with each other, but Laura Skonberg, communications director for Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians, said her organization "believe[s] strongly in the importance of the all-girl environment."

Skonberg said the Southern Appalachians council extends from northern Georgia to southern Virginia, taking in 46 counties and around 10,500 girls. In a statement, she added:

"Research has proven the benefit of this type of girl-centered environment. For over 100 years, our programs have been tailored specifically to a girl's unique developmental needs."

She said Girl Scout alumnae are better educated, more successful in their careers, more active in their communities, and more confident in themselves and their abilities than non-Scouts.

"In the U.S., 90 percent of female astronauts, 80 percent of female tech leaders, 75 percent of current senators, and all U.S. Secretaries of State are Girl Scout alumnae," she said.

She also pointed out that Girl Scouts has its own top program, the Gold Award.

Nelson, the Scout dad, said he's looked into that program.

"It's harder than the Eagle, it's a lot more time-consuming, a lot more service oriented but I don't think it's recognized as equal to the Eagle, as it should be," he said.

Victoria Johnson, development director for the Cherokee Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, emphasized that even if girls join the Boy Scouts, they'll be in single-gender programs in the lower ranks.

"It's a program that is certainly suitable for both boys and girls. It is not designed to steal girls away from the Girl Scouts," she said.

The Cherokee Area Council has more than 6,000 Scouts and adult volunteers in the 11-county region of Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, Johnson said.

She said response from local families has been "overwhelmingly positive" and added, "Families have wanted for a long time to allow girls to enter."

If admitted, she said, younger girls and boys will be in single-gender dens. Upper-level programs, such as Sea Scouts and Explorers, have been coed for years for youths ages 14-21.

"That's one of the most important things we'd like to get across: The charter organization will be able to choose which way they want to go," Johnson said.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.