All of my adult life has been spent, in one way or another, with children and youth. I began working in the local church context after my freshman year of college as a summer intern, and I have maintained my connection in various ways with these age groups for nearly a quarter century now. While my energy has been mostly invested in church-related youth work, I have also dabbled in other venues that serve youth. The consistent cry I have heard from leaders across the board has been something like this: "We feel we're doing a great job with the youth already here, but we are really not doing much to reach the kids who are at the margins."
"At the margins" could mean any number of things, from an abusive, neglectful, or apathetic family environment, to the young person who is (or is becoming) chemically addicted, sexually active or academically challenged. But it always means, for whatever reason, and to whatever degree, that this young person is "unreachable."
I was reminded last night of one of the reasons why some of these "at the margins" kids are unreachable. Our second-to-the-youngest son is in his first year as a Boy Scout, a troop which is sponsored by the church I pastor, and a troop which is exceptional. (In previous pastoral appointments Boy Scouts has been an anemic group, whether in vitality or in terms of adult leadership, but Troop 29 is quite excellent). The Troop has oodles of adults who provide leadership, a healthy core of boys who provide leadership, parents who are supportive, and a growing base of support. Like any quest for excellence, however, this all comes with a cost.
When Tony joined scouts earlier this year the mantra to parents from the leaders was, "It's not just the boy who joins Boy Scouts; it's the family who joins." There is an expectation of parental involvement (whether in defined leadership roles within the troop on a regular basis, or in short-term ways like helping with fundraisers) which is high. It is really not optional for a Boy Scout to be active without parental support, especially if your child is less focused or less motivated than a "typical" Boy Scout might be. In our situation, for example, Tony's ADD prevents him from often getting the correct information home after a meeting, or from remembering when he is supposed to dress in his uniform and when not to, what the deadlines are for a particular camp registration, and so on. It means countless attempts on the part of the Scout leaders to connect with us as parents in order to iron out details.
And scouting is, if nothing else, a detail-oriented experience. There are particular places where patches belong on the official scout shirt, there are numerous items to remember to bring to each meeting, a week-long camping experience requires clothing, "gear," personal items and numerous optional items. (Try explaining the difference between "required" and "optional" items to a kid whose attention span is 3.5 seconds, and you'll understand the parental frustration of the experience).
Parental support is a cornerstone of a successful scouting experience, even if only on the financial end. After last night's pre-camping meeting, we spent well over $100 just to get the required items he will need. There is probably another $50 - $75 that will be invested in the next couple of days as we check items off our final list. This is in addition to the $160 registration fee and any spending money he will use while there. Fortunately our son lives in a family with two parents earning middle-class salaries, so the monetary investment is not crushing for us.
For our son Tony Scouting will be a good experience. He has two parents who are as supportive as they can be, who are financially able to support what he is doing, and who are committed to keeping him involved (we have a "no quit" rule in our family for kids who are involved in activities).
For the typical kid at the margins, though, this is often not the case. Either the money is not there, or the time commitment, or even something as basic as transportation to get the kid to regular meetings does not exist. Many kids on the margins live in families where the parent is barely able to keep the details of his or her life together, not to mention the details required for an experience like scouting.
I am glad to say that the Troop Tony is a part of consists of wonderfully committed adults who have been as helpful to me (if not moreso) than to my son. They are courteous in reminding me of missed deadlines, helpful in letting me know what expectations exist, and supportive of Tony's involvement. Our son will have a good experience because he has committed parents, excellent troop leadership and a positive peer group to be with. I wish it were so for the many kids on the margins, but I'm afraid there are too many systemic barriers (invisible to the rest of us) that prevent that kind of involvement. And it's really too bad, because they are the ones who could really benefit from something like Scouting.