Boy Scouts: offering new and old ways to be prepared

''Being prepared'' has always made sense to Boy Scouts. They still learn how to tie knots, read a compass, and pitch a tent in the woods. In addition, they learn about money management, the use of computers (there's even a merit badge), and how to start dinner for single or working parents.

But for today's 4.5 million members who are celebrating the organization's 73 rd anniversary this week, there's more to being prepared than just learning new skills. And it cuts right to the heart of how one organization can help a boy make the often difficult passage from childhood to manhood.

''Boys want to believe in something, they want to belong to something. We help them do both of those things,'' says J.L. Tarr, chief Scout executive of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), at its national headquarters here.

''Yes, we have introduced innovations to meet changing needs. There's a scouting program for handicapped awareness. We run computer camps in the summer.'' And pausing, he adds, ''But you must remember - that the old things we've been doing are new every year to a boy.''

What are those old things?

''Duty to God, to country, to others, and to self,'' says Mr. Tarr. This is what makes the Boy Scouts as relevant today as they were at the turn of the century when Robert Baden-Powell founded British Scouting, which took root in the US in 1910.

''We feel we are a supplement to the three basic institutions of our society: the home, the church, and the schools. Anything we do must support all three of these institutions,'' says Tarr, who first became a Cub Scout himself 51 years ago.

According to a recent study done for the Scouts, young people aged 8 to 18 have ''a crying need for family.'' Recognizing that need, the national leadership introduced two new programs this past year.

The first, called Tiger Cubs, is for 7-year-olds (previously a boy had to be 8 years old to join the Cub Scouts). It introduces boys to merit-badge programs and group activities that will hopefully lead into full participation with the Scouts.

''Tiger Cubs really helps young boys from single-parent homes. It gets the boys out into group activities,'' says Bob Downey, a scout troopmaster in Weymouth, Mass. ''But it has an added bonus of also helping the parent. Most of the time this means his mother.''

Family camping is the other recent innovation. ''We found that with many families, having both mother and father working - our research says 50 percent of US families are two-income families - a number of parents were protective of their time with the kids on weekends. We realized we had to expand and share the scouting experience with them,'' says Michael Whittaker of BSA headquarters in Irving, Texas.

With the help of the BSA, community and religious organizations as well as independent groups organize and run Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, and Explorer Posts for children and youth (girls can join Explorers). This past year saw the biggest membership jump in 14 years.

''Our success is because of volunteers,'' Tarrsays. ''When you figure a scoutmaster can have between 30 and 60 boys in his troop, and each of them will likely call him twice a week, you start to see the amount of time that gets put in.''

But the turnover rate of volunteers is a constant concern to the BSA. ''At present 70 percent of our cubmasters, 35 percent of our scoutmasters, and 50 percent of our Explorer leaders have a tenure of less than five years,'' says Barclay Bollas, director of news media for the BSA.

Tarr says that nearly all paid and volunteer positions with the Boy Scouts are open to women. It is only in ''the difficult developmental years, 10 to 14, when boys need a male role model, that men troopleaders are required.''

BSA officials say it is not surprising that churches sponsor troops. They cite two specific reasons: One, a belief in God is a requirement for being a scout. Secondly, scouting is a way for churches to extend their ministry to young families, half of whom the Boy Scouts estimate do not belong to any denomination.

The official youth program for members of the Mormon church is the Boy Scouts. (That may explain why more Mormons reach the top rank of Eagle scout than members of any other organization.) There are Buddhist and Muslim troops as well as troops for the blind and deaf.

Wearing uniforms is still encouraged to make members ''visible as a force for good,'' Whittaker says. But it's no longer mandatory, partly because of the cost.

Nick Nichols of Philadelphia, Pa., got involved in scouting in 1971. All four of his sons were scouts, two of them reaching Eagle. ''I'm still involved though my boys are out,'' he says. Of his present troop of 40 boys, 14 don't have a father in the home.

When asked what scouting means to him, Mr. Nichols tells the story of a camping trip his Boy Scout troop took to the Pennsylvania State Park, where George Washington crossed the Delaware River with the Continental Army during the American Revolution. There is a lookout tower there that, he says, ''takes 102 steps to get to the top for a spectacular view of the city.''

''I had to take a 9-year-old Cub Scout once, with the rest of the 10-to-14 -year-old Boy Scouts. At first they didn't want him along so they loaded him down with extra camping gear, the first-aid kit, even the troop flag. When we got to the tower, everyone decided to leave their gear on the ground and climb up,'' he reminisces.

But ''when we got to the top, the last footsteps coming up were those of the 9-year-old, with full gear and the troop flag.

''He didn't have to carry much down by himself,'' Nichols says. ''And everyone learned something about mutual respect.''

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