It’s an unseasonably warm day at the Echockotee Boy Scouts camp in Orange Park. About an hour before noon, the sun peeks out of the clouds and lights up the five large archery targets located outside the pavilion, located a quarter mile distance from the camps.
Mike Mazur, a district representative for the North Florida Shooting Sports Committee, paces back and forth with a longbow, carefully explaining the myriad of accidents and injuries that could result from improper archery techniques.
A hand shoots up in a sea of brown uniforms lined up along the picnic tables. It waves around a little when Mazur glances its way. When he finishes his piece, he acknowledges it.
“Make sure you talk about the nock indicator!”
The hand belongs to Rose Gottschalk. She is one of 14 members of the recently-formed all-girl Scouts BSA (Boy Scouts of America) Troop 291, based in Ponte Vedra Beach. The Troop is one of 11 new all-girl troops in the North Florida area. Although the troop technically consists of inductees to scouting, many of the girls are already well-versed with many of the ins and outs of the program.
That’s because well before the Boy Scouts program rebranded as Scouts BSA on Feb. 1 and invited girls to join, they were attending “family camping” with their brothers, who were already in the program. They did all the same activities and learned all the same skills on these trips. They just weren’t getting the merit badges or belt loops. The integration of girls into Scouts BSA was the last scouting division within the Boy Scouts of America to allow both girls and boys. According to Patrick Linfors, director of field service/COO for the Boy Scouts of America North Florida Council, in August 2018, the Cub Scouts opened for girls in grades K through 5. Other divisions such as Venturing has open to women since 1998, and Sea Scouts and Exploring has been co-ed since 1971.
Recently, Troop 291 acquired two Cub Scouts who crossed over from Pack 277, also of Ponte Vedra, on Feb. 25 at the Christ Episcopal Church. They earned their Arrow of Light awards, the highest award in Cub Scouts. The girls were the first in history to achieve the award.
Dick Basye has spent the past 13 years as a Boy Scouts leader, is currently serving at the district level and is the committee chair for the Ponte Vedra all-girls troop. Basye was also a scout in his youth and has seen the organization evolve throughout the years.
“The Scouts is leadership training for life,” Basye says. “So, it's a great program. It prepares the kids for the future and it is making tomorrow's leaders. I was a scout leader for boys for years and these girls are phenomenal at what they can do. …You know, I believe in the program. I knew (allowing girls in) was going to come. I mean, we (were) one of the only four countries in the world that (didn’t) have co-ed scouting.”
Basye says the program the BSA originally based itself on was the scouting movement in England, which was founding in 1907. According to The Daily Telegraph, the organization has allowed girls in as early as the 1970s. Basye says that much of the controversy surrounding the policy change has been due to a lack of information, from the media and otherwise. He went on to say that once he tells people that the troops and camps are not co-ed and that the BSA and Girl Scouts organizations are unaffiliated, the outrage typically recedes.
“It takes two seconds to actually read an article and then figure out what most people don't bother to look up,” Basye says.
The controversy isn’t just limited to the opinions of the community. The Girl Scouts organization has been in litigation surrounding the change of membership policy with the Boy Scouts of America since November 2018. According to the complaint, the Girl Scouts claim the decision is an infringement on their trademark and can potentially cause confusion. Mary Anne Jacobs, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council, released a statement to the Ponte Vedra Recorder regarding the litigation.
“Competitors come and go — but Girl Scouts focuses on moving forward at the pace of girls,” Jacobs says. “We remain as committed and focused as ever before when it comes to serving today’s girls in new, exciting and future-focused ways, because the need for female leadership has never been greater.”
While there aren’t stark differences between the BSA and the Girl Scouts missions, the girls in Troop 291 say they like how much outdoor time is involved in the program and also want to learn skills like archery and rifle shooting. A few of the girls in Troop 291 that have participated in both organizations say they also enjoy how the Scouts BSA program is structured for the members to work as independently as possible.
“You can do a lot of the same things in Girl Scouts, but you can do more for yourself,” says Nishita Ramesh, the patrol leader. “See, like today we get to make our own lunch and dinner. We get to decide what we want to do and what we want to eat. Like we just had cupcakes. We have coke. We are (drinking) coke right now.”
Local Girl Scouts embark on moon mission with robotics
About 10 minutes away from where Troop 291 meets at the United Methodist Church in Ponte Vedra, five third-grade Brownies are coding their first robot.
Aubrey O’Reilly, a volunteer leader for Troop 2112 in Ponte Vedra, led the girls on the first junior Girl Scouts robotics team in Jacksonville to present at the Shiva Robotics Academy FIRST LEGO League Junior STEM challenge. She became interested in nurturing her daughter’s interest in robotics and engineering but found the landscape of after-school STEM programs to be expensive and limiting. After attending an event hosted through the Girl Scouts, which featured Shiva Robotics and Renaissance Jax, she became “hyped” to try the Academy and enter the Florida FIRST LEGO (FLL) Jr. Expo.
After recruiting some other girls in the troop, the team, named the “Mighty Emus,” met every Wednesday to work on designing their moon mission.
“They were very interested in learning about the moon and about possibly living on the moon,” O’Reilly says. “It was fun to see their imaginations run wild as they were building our moon base, designing our T-shirts and especially building and coding the different robots that we built each session in the program.”
O’Reilly saw the potential of not only nurturing her daughter’s interest but creating a safe space for her and the other girls to try new things.
“I also think that it's important to get girls involved in areas like robotics because we need to build and encourage their confidence from the very beginning,” O’Reilly says. “They need to know that robots aren't just for boys and coding can be fun.
“They will do more in a group of just girls,” O’Reilly went on to say. “A lot of these teams are like four boys and one girl, you know, and so sometimes the boys sort of take over and (girls feel like they) can't express themselves.”
The girls got together and designed, coded and built their moon base every day for nine weeks. When the Mighty Emus presented at the Prime Osborn Convention Center on Feb. 23, they were only one of a few all-girl groups. They used their imaginations and learned team skills. They were proud of themselves.
“Our robot worked perfectly and I’m so happy,” Girl Scout Emily Hightower says. “When you're practicing it, it sometimes doesn't work. During the presentation, I talked about problem solving. We came to some problems during the mission moon, like how the green house was too close to the water source.”
Girl Scout Mackenzie O’Reilly described herself as a de facto team leader.
“I like how robots look and how they do things,” she says. “(The presentation) was amazing and I loved doing it with friends. I’m good at getting the team together.”
At ease in their surroundings
Back at the Boy Scouts Echockotee camp, the troop is cleaning up after lunch. Second-in-command, Assistant Senior Patrol Leader Marina Mitchell is directing the troop on proper washing techniques while the adults lounge in a pavilion a distance away.
Rose Gottschalk from the younger division of the “Winged Tigers” patrol, plays with her trumpet. She knows “Taps” and says her favorite part of being the official “bugle boy” of the troop is waking everyone up in the morning.
Gottschalk becomes exasperated when continually asked about why some other girls choose to be in the Girl Scouts.
“Some girls just choose to,” she says. “If they want to, they can! Just choose! We need both!”
Amid the controversy, the Girl Scouts junior robotics team is giggling and helping each other with their Lego designs while eating cupcakes. Miles apart, two younger members of Scouts BSA Troop 291 are looking intently at a worm they found by the campsite. Neither group seems to notice the world around them at the moment, but they do seem at ease in their surroundings.