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Youth groups appear poised for growth post-COVID-19 as scouting suffers

Photo via TrailLifeUSA.com

GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP) — Youth groups Trail Life USA and American Heritage Girls are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic poised for growth, while longstanding scouting groups are suffering membership declines that predate the pandemic.

Only Trail Life USA, founded in 2014 as a character development group for boys, grew its membership in 2020-2021 compared to the 2019 pre-pandemic year, according to CEO Mark Hancock, who cited 30 percent growth. American Heritage Girls, a 26-year-old Christ-centered leadership development program for girls, suffered an 18.9 percent drop in membership in the 2020-2021 fiscal year which ended May 31, after growing nearly 2 percent the previous year, according to Patti Garibay, the organization’s founder and executive director.

“Since Spring of 2021, we have received a record number of inquiries to start troops,” Garibay said. “The number of girls looking to join a troop has remained robust. There are currently over 17,000 girls looking to join an AHG Troop.”

Longstanding groups Boy Scouts of America (BSA), which declared bankruptcy in 2020 as an avenue to settle thousands of sexual abuse lawsuits, and Girl Scouts USA continued membership declines in 2020 that predated the pandemic year, the Associated Press reported. AP cited reasons including the pandemic, competition from sports leagues and busy family schedules.

Hancock, however, said BSA is suffering membership declines because it has abandoned its foundational standards as a God-centered character development program for boys.

“Like with Boy Scouts, when an organization … that provided us with presidents and astronauts and generals and civic leaders for over 100 years decides to abandon its laser focus on boys, its commitments to the strengths that made them and this country great, what would you expect?” Hancock said. “We believe families are scrambling in search of an organization that will help them make godly men from the stuff of boys. Trail Life is an organization; that’s why our numbers are exploding.”

Boy Scouts opened scouting to homosexuals in 2013. Messengers to the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting approved a resolution expressing “opposition to and disappointment in” the changes to the Boy Scouts’ membership policy. The BSA launched female troops in 2019 with Scouts USA. Its 2020 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was designed to create an avenue to compensate thousands of former scouts who have filed sexual harassment lawsuits claiming abuses spanning decades. More than 60,000 abuse claims have been cited.

Thursday (July 1), BSA announced a $850 million restructuring support agreement with current abuse victims, local Boy Scouts councils and lawyers appointed to handle future abuse claims. The agreement includes $250 million from national BSA, $500 million from local councils and as much as $100 million from a separate trust established from pension funds, BSA said.

BSA suffered a 43 percent drop in membership in Cub Scouts and Scouts BSA from 2019 to 2020, AP reported, dropping from 1.97 million to 1.12 million. The AP obtained court records indicating a further drop in membership to date to about 762,000. BSA has suffered membership declines for decades, falling from about 4 million youth as recently as 1970, the AP reported.

Trail Life USA has about 35,000 members, reporting a 70 percent increase in new members over this time last year and a 30 percent increase over the same period of 2019. The program has more than 850 troops in all 50 states, with most troops launched at churches. The program’s outdoor setting allowed it to thrive during the pandemic, Hancock said, even as troops were encouraged to follow local and national COVID-19 safety protocols.

“As America opens up again, I think Trail Life is continuing to thrive as families evaluate what activities they choose to re-engage in,” Hancock said. “One of the positive things to come out of the past year has been the reconnection of families. … At Trail Life USA, the twin emphasis on connecting boys with dads and (father figures), and growing character and leadership through outdoor adventure are resonating strongly with parents and churches.”

American Heritage Girls reported 43,174 troops in 2020-2021, down from 52,439 in 2018-2019. Troops had grown to 53,214 in 2019-2020. Garibay indicated the organization’s structure made it vulnerable during the pandemic.

“Each troop is a ministry of a church or religious school, and many churches were closed during the pandemic, making it difficult for troops to meet and grow,” Garibay told Baptist Press. “Many troops went on sabbatical, and some left [American Heritage Girls] entirely during the pandemic.

“The good news is that [American Heritage Girls] was able to pivot and provide a digital experience for troops across the country with our program initiatives which included YouTube Live sessions, as well as the expansion of the Trailblazer membership, which allowed girls to be a part of [the group] independently outside a troop setting.”

American Heritage Girls initially created its Trailblazer program for military and missionary families going overseas, but has been expanded to allow more girls to participate in American Heritage Girls independent of troop availability. She encouraged churches and volunteers to participate in American Heritage Girls to help serve girls interested in joining.

“The interest is huge and the need for leaders and churches to step forward to start a troop is great,” Garibay said. “[American Heritage Girls] works diligently to create awareness with churches and potential volunteers to meet this need. Troop development coaches walk alongside each new troop every step of the way to ensure the best experience for the girls and volunteers.”

Troops include girls of various ethnicities, including whites, Hispanics, African Americans and Asians, and also girls with special needs. Girls learn about Christian faith, leadership, social and emotional health, citizenship, patriotism, life skills, and the importance and enjoyment of the outdoors. Garibay said girls learn their spiritual calling and future vocation and how that integrates with their faith.

“The pandemic and subsequent loss of extracurricular activities allowed parents time to assess what is most important for their girls in today’s post-Christian culture,” Garibay said. “Many concluded that a Christ-centered character development and leadership program emphasizing outdoor adventure and scouting methods is the perfect antidote to a rapidly changing cultural worldview.”

Garibay said she founded American Heritage Girls in 1995 as an alternative to Girl Scouts USA as the group began to stray from its Christian foundation and incorporated other religions.

Girl Scouts reported a membership decline of nearly 30%, from about 1.4 million in 2019- 2020 to just over 1 million this year, according to AP. The group lists on its website 1.7 million girl members and 750,000 adult members, primarily volunteers.

“We knew some girls would take a pause,” Girl Scouts spokeswoman Kelly Parisi told AP. “But as the pandemic goes in the rear-view mirror, we’ve seen a substantial rebound. … We feel really good going into the fall recruitment.”