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Scouts in a Changing America: Boys Need More Adult Leaders

IN the basement of the mammoth Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End, a boy scout troop meeting is called to order. A scout's hand shoots into the air. ``I've got a friend that wants to join!'' he says enthusiastically.

Scoutmaster Tino Arias's response is as surprising as it is quick: ``No.''

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End of discussion.

The problem Mr. Arias faces is a shortage of adult support. In an era of single-parent families and two-career couples, ``the only way I can take on a new boy is if he brings an adult with him,'' says the 22-year-old senior at Boston College.

As the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) celebrates its 80th anniversary, critics say the organization as a whole must adjust to attract enough adult support. BSA membership has risen by one-third over the past decade to a total of 4.3 million boys, according to spokesman Lee Sneath.

Emphasis on traditional family structure and involvement has been fundamental to the program of youth development in which boys earn achievement awards, says Gerda McCahan, a professor of psychology at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who has worked with scouts there. ``I think that people value the scouting experience. The problem is that they are trying to fit that into a changing family situation,'' she says.

This shifting social pattern is evident in Arias's inner-city troop. The few helpers he has are not relatives of scouts, but rather concerned community members.

Recalling his own scouting days, Arias says, ``In my own troop ... the scoutmaster ... would have at least six adults helping at all times.'' Today, he adds, ``the main positions can't be filled.''

As is the case in many of today's troops, his right-hand man is a woman. Evelyn Aleman, 26, has been with the troop since Arias founded it in November 1988. ``I live in the projects with a lot of these kids and wanted to help out,'' says Ms. Aleman.

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BSA opened its doors to women scoutmasters in 1987. ``We've reached the conclusion that everybody else is fast coming to: that qualified leadership is not based on gender,'' says Mr. Sneath.

Local schools and churches have also been helping BSA adjust to a changing society.

``In-school scouting,'' a joint venture with the Girl Scouts of the USA, is receiving enthusiastic praise in Chicago.

Schools participating in the program provide 40 minutes of class time weekly for scout-related activities. In addition to exposing young people to scouting, the program has improved school attendance, reduced incidents of gang formation, and involved parents more in childrens' school work, says Ken Walters, BSA's director of support services for Chicago.

Programs similar to this are under way in various forms throughout the US, Sneath says.

Such contributions by established community organizations help make up for the decline in family participation. ``That is exactly the kind of innovation you need,'' says Dr. McCahan. ``You use school people instead of parent people, and you use school structure in place of family structure.''

Meanwhile, targeting kids instead of adults, BSA is marketing a new, high adventure image. BSA's revised handbook portrays scouts clad in khaki shorts and bold red uniform tops, not only in their traditional camp setting, but also rafting white-water rapids and rappelling down a steep cliff.

BSA is trying to put to rest the long-outdated image of scouts helping little old ladies across the street.

But many people who work with the youths say that more than a cosmetic makeover is required. ``They've changed the appearance of things, but I'm not so sure anything is all that changed around,'' Arias says.

He calls for a focus on leadership instead of image. Especially in minority communities, finding leaders familiar with scouting can be difficult.

BSA leaders agree that establishing a good leader and role model for the youngsters involves more than recruiting a man or woman with free time.

``Minorities want scouting just as badly as the white people in the suburbs. They just don't know how to do it,'' says Mr. Walters.

Even Arias, an eagle scout, had to learn. ``I had never been a scoutmaster, and they had never been scouts, so it was a learning experience for everyone involved,'' he says.

Kevin Fitzpatick, a member of Arias's troop, says that his parents are happy that he and his brother Carl are scouts. ``After every meeting we go home and talk about what we did,'' he says. But while his parents support the boys' involvement, their careers force them to watch from the sidelines. ``I'd rather they could be there for themselves to see it, than to hear about it from me afterwards,'' Kevin says.

The future of Arias's troop is uncertain. When he agreed to start the troop he said he would only be available while he was here in school. His senior year is almost over. ``I was afraid of doing something that would flounder the moment I left because of the lack of local support,'' he says.

And what happens now? ``If we work together the troop will stay; if we don't it will just be a fun two years, but we want it [to be] more than that,'' he says.

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