So here's another part of my series on the five Ultimate Secrets to Successful Venturing. These are hard-won lessons I've distilled from eighteen years of successful Exploring/Venturing leadership.
Venturing is not just Boy Scouting + girls
One of the interesting wrinkles about Exploring, which has carried over into Venturing, is the inclusion of girls in a BSA program. I admit, I was worried about this when we started out.
I was particularly worried about teaching things like trail sanitation. I knew how Boy Scouts were. When some 13-year-old finally could hold it no longer and went off to dig a cathole, some other Scouts were likely to sneak up on him when his pants were down and chuck pine cones at him (at least, back in my day; but then, we were a lot ruder than current Youth Protection guidelines contemplate). I shuddered facing the possibilities with girls. I needn’t have worried. By the time kids are 14 or 15, they’re past all that. Particularly on the trail: if you’ve got to go take care of something, it just means I get to lie here by the side of the trail for a few minutes longer, so hey, take all the time you want.
The real problem is that they fall in love with each other on long trips – and they fall out of love just as rapidly. Having a couple break up at 1:00 a.m. by a campfire a two-day walk from the trailhead (which was two more days from home) is not an experience I enjoyed, but we all lived through it. Being clear about expectations for boyfriends and girlfriends is very important, but you’re still going to have to deal with stuff you don’t deal with at Boy Scout camp. It comes with the territory.
Once again, my background in youth ministry came to the rescue. I was used to taking co-ed groups places, like on retreats. I knew how to set expectations and supervise outings. I could graft that onto my Scouting leadership skills, and we were off and running.
It helped that at first we had no other BSA units chartered to my congregation. Our Explorer Post and then our Venturing Crew were not built onto an existing Boy Scout Troop. We were not there to “keep the older boys active.” We were on our own. We had our own committee and leaders. We set our own pattern, built our own culture.
We discovered that Venturing has two primary audiences. First, girls (duh). Not all girls want to go grub in the mountains, but those that do find it difficult to find groups to participate in. They are fiercely loyal to their Venturing Crew. But the other primary audience is non-Scout boys – guys who didn’t do Boy Scouts, or didn’t get very far. They are attracted to a high adventure program where they get to learn with their peer group, not be forced to go back and learn flag courtesy and fire-building with the eleven-year-olds.
These are both growth opportunities for BSA, so it has always mystified me how many people see Venturing as primarily about keeping older boys in Scouting (and advancing toward Eagle). Hey, Boy Scouting is a fine high adventure program. You don’t need Venturing to do Philmont or Sea Base or anything else. Venturing is a different beast because it is co-ed. A girls’ program (even with boys added) or a boys’ program (even with girls added) is still a girls’ program or a boys’ program; Venturing is truly co-ed. That means the culture is different. How people relate to each other is different (and I’m not talking about dating behavior). At a recent Council event, the Venturers were having a Ranger Quest program at the same time that the staff for NYLT was rehearsing in camp. We shared dining hall meals. Every meal, the NYLT guys would jump up and do all kinds of high-energy, spirit-building things. They were great, but they were very guy-ish. The Venturers didn’t know what to make of them. And it’s not that the Venturers don’t have spirit; they obviously do. But they don’t necessarily show it the same way. I wonder about the wisdom of trying to make all BSA youth training funnel into the same big programs, which is where we’re heading these days.
Venturing is becoming more uniform-conscious these days, too, which is good, in its way; however, there is some value in being less concerned with outward symbols. When you think about it, Boy Scouting spends an enormous amount of time in what we could call acculturation. We are teaching little boys on the cusp of young manhood the signs and symbols, the codes and behaviors, of adulthood by instilling in them a very specific, Scout way of being. There’s a lot of emphasis on uniforms, on flag courtesy, on learning how to shake hands and salute, on the recitation of certain watchwords. That’s very appropriate for 11-13 year old boys. It has had less of an emphasis in the older teen, co-ed program of Venturing, and properly so, I think.
In order to provide this new kind of program to Venturers, we must also produce a new kind of adult leader to take them on these adventures. My wife learned to backpack in her forties in order to deliver on the promise to our daughter. She even backpacked across Yellowstone a year after having a hip replacement. She doesn’t feel up to long trips any more, but she’ll still go out on Shakedown weekends to help with the training. There is no one I trust more. She takes this co-ed high adventure stuff as just normal, and never had to unlearn any old habits from Boy Scouting that might not have translated to Venturing; she not only helps break in new youth on the trail, she helps model how we do Venturing to the new adults.