Michigan scouts carry on, despite organization's struggles

Alex Nester
The Detroit News

Troy — An elusive spotted water beetle squirmed around on a petri dish while a small group of Cub Scouts observed the jittery critter through a microscope at the Stage Nature Center.

"He doesn't like the spotlight," said scout Owenn Waatti, 9.

From left, Cub Scouts Owenn Waatti, 9, and Tyler Kneuss, 9, use a microscope to observe aquatic life from a local pond during a Cub Scouts STEM camp at Stage Nature Center in Troy.

The aquatic observation was part of a STEM day camp conducted from Aug. 6-8 for Cub Scouts from across Michigan by the Boy Scouts' Great Lakes Field Service Council. Over three days, the youngsters crafted sea anemones from pipe cleaners, fired pinto beans from slingshots at metal pie pan targets, and caught crayfish.

"We try to make sure there's a wide variety of different experiences within scouting," said Julie Zwiesler-Vollick, an assistant professor of natural sciences at Lawrence Tech University who volunteered at the STEM camp. "Sometimes we do try sports and play games, but sometimes we do more STEM stuff, so they get to try a lot of different things. Even if they don't like everything, they can find something they like." 

The activities to encourage learning in science, technology, engineering and math go beyond traditional scouting events like hikes and pinewood derby races, and are offered as Michigan Cub and Boy Scout organizations cope with declining membership, troubled finances and the fallout from a growing nationwide sex abuse scandal.

Nationally, membership declined from 2.7 million in 2011 to 2.2 million last year, according to Boy Scouts of America.

Justin Williams, director of field services for the Great Lakes Field Service Council, said scout membership in the Michigan Crossroads Council, which serves the Lower Peninsula, has fallen by more than 12,000 since 2012, from 74,041 to 61,561 in 2018. Those numbers include Scouts BSA, for ages 11-17, and Cub Scouts, for ages 5-10.  

Eight-year-old Violet Osantowske of St. Clair Shores practices using a slingshot during a Cub Scouts STEM camp at Stage Nature Center in Troy.

In addition, the Michigan Crossroads Council had an operating deficit of more than $580,000 last year, according to its 2018 annual report. In 2017, the deficit exceeded $668,000.

On Aug. 5, the national organization was rocked when a group of lawyers announced about 800 men have come forward this year alleging they were sexually abused as boys by scout leaders. Last year, costly lawsuit settlements for victims of sexual abuse caused the Boy Scouts of America nationally to consider filing for bankruptcy.

Williams, whose council covers Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, said local scout leaders are strictly enforcing a youth protection training program for adult volunteers that was implemented last year.

The program is three times as long as the previous training program and includes an overview of policies and procedures, followed by instruction on handling signs of sexual abuse and bullying, and a final examination. 

The certification achieved at the end of programming lasts for two years, after which volunteers must recertify. 

According to Williams, scout leaders must follow the "two-deep" rule, meaning that at least two Youth Protection-certified leaders must accompany scouts at all times.

"There's an idea among a lot of people that kids can get abused, but it won't happen to my kid," he said. "But nobody is immune to this epidemic in our society." 

Instructor Miranda Roberts, right, takes Cub Scout Pack 135 for a hike during a STEM camp at Stage Nature Center in Troy.

Since 2014, the Michigan Crossroads Council has sold properties to cut expenditures on property taxes and maintenance, said Christopher Hopkins, chief information officer for the Michigan Crossroads Council.

He said the statewide organization has worked to "right-size," and although the Michigan Crossroads Council has run deficits in recent years, the council's financial state is not dire. 

"A lot of it is evaluating everything we do, from properties to programs to staffing, and all of that is an ongoing process," Hopkins said.

Seven years ago, nine councils across the Lower Peninsula merged into four field service councils, creating the Michigan Crossroads Council. At that point, the organization owned nearly 20 camps across the state and has sold about half of those properties since, Hopkins said. 

"Our executive board is committed to doing what's right for scouts, scouters, and families, and seeing that it remains a vibrant program in Michigan," Hopkins said.

Metro Detroit scout leaders, meanwhile, say they've had some success in bucking statewide and national declines in membership.

Williams said the Great Lakes Field Service Council is one of two councils in the U.S. that has gained membership for five straight years. The largest of the four Boy Scout councils in the Lower Peninsula, it grew from 23,818 members in 2013 to 25,620 in 2018.

Job training for middle and high school-aged scouts is one reason the local council has experienced growth, Williams said. As part of the Boy Scouts of America's Exploring Program, scouts can partner with local organizations for exposure to a variety of jobs and careers, from welding to engineering to law.

Matthew Whitwell, Cubmaster for Trombly Elementary's Pack 86 in Grosse Pointe Park, said the Michigan Crossroads Council has increased membership with creative themes and entertaining events.

Whitwell said the council uses fun themes and events to attract younger children, including girls, to Cub Scouts. Recent activities include "Hooked on Fishing," where children who joined scouting received a fishing rod, and "Blast into Scouting," an event where participants launched bottle rockets, among other STEM-related activities. 

"Even though financially it's tough for BSA at the time, the Great Lakes Field Service Council makes the right moves," Whitwell said. "They make really good moves for membership and supporting units rather than making packs and troops support themselves."

In the five years he has been involved with Pack 86, Whitwell said membership has grown from 18 to 32 scouts.

Making units more inclusive has helped draw more youths, Whitwell said. His troop invites siblings of scouts to participate in scouting events and has designated itself as LGBTQ-friendly. The pack also provides scholarships for trips and activities to financially restricted youths and holds fundraisers such as popcorn sales to keep outing costs low.

Scoutmaster Omari Sankofa of Boy Scout Troop 647 out of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit said membership has remained steady since he took over the program 13 years ago. The church's program has about 30 Boy Scouts and 10 Cub scouts, he said.

Sankofa attributes the unit's membership stagnation to the host church's changing demographics. 

Members of Detroit's Boy Scout Troop 647, based at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, in procession during a campout Aug. 3, 2019, at Cole Canoe Base Camp in Alger.

"The church has gotten older, and we haven't replaced a lot of the young families," Sankofa said. "There's a smaller cadre of boys to pull from."

One problem impacting his unit, and especially the Cub Scouts, is the lack of parental involvement, he said.

"When I came into scouting, there were a lot of dads and moms who were really active," Sankofa said. "Over the last 10 years, there have been more grandparents, and not a lot of dads involved."

Sankofa said the troop recruits by word of mouth, with scouts reaching out to their peers at school. 

"It seems like when they have a friend in the group, they stay in longer," he said.

With the end of summer approaching, and camps winding down, Williams said many scout troops are taking a short break before the beginning of the school year.

Williams said the Great Lakes Field Service Council will host a weekend Rendezvous this September, inviting 7,000-10,000 scouts to camp overnight at Willow Metropark in New Boston. Activities at the three-day camp will include include challenge courses, horseback riding, zip lining — and a STEM zone.

"Our belief in Boy Scouts of America is that we are one piece of a community and we are raising stronger kids to be prepared for the future," Williams said.