Easily recognizable as a symbol of boyhood adventures, flashes of the yellow-gold neckerchief worn by more than a dozen Cub Scouts in Forest Park darted excitedly across the room as the young boys cheered their pinewood derby cars along the track. Parents and family members – many of whom seemed just as interested as the Scouts – huddled at the finish line with cameras ready.
For several hours Sunday afternoon the Scouting event drew raucous cheers and wide smiles, erasing the language barrier that exists between a generation fluent in texting and their parents, who never imagined such a thing.
“It really has been enjoyable,” said Patrick Doolin, Cub Scout pack leader and 41-year-old father. “It’s something almost every boy, young adult and man can relate to.”
For almost a year now two groups of boys between the ages of 8 and 10 have met weekly in Forest Park to work on their merit badges and learn skills of a seemingly ancient but universal nature. Scouting, of course, has a long history in the U.S. dating back to 1910, but has been absent from this community for several years, according to parents now active in the group. A trove of Scouting awards and memorabilia discovered in the closet of an elementary school suggests the organization petered out in 2000 after decades of active participation.
But that was before members of the local Kiwanis club began suggesting to parents that a Scouting revival was needed and before long, a loose knit group of volunteers had some 15 kids outfitted in blue shirts and yellow-gold scarves. Kiwanis now serves as the local pack’s charter sponsor.
Brian Sullivan, a den leader and father of a 9-year-old Scout, has helped lead the group on various outings that include singing carols at the Altenheim and attending a Chicago Wolves hockey game. It takes a lot of time, said Sullivan, but he’s been pleased to see a strong parental turnout at every event and hopes next year the organization’s numbers will swell. Cub Scout activities typically follow the school year, which means parents have the summer to drum up support for the next season. “The parents have been great,” Sullivan said.
Boosting the ranks of various Scouting groups has been a struggle recently not only in Forest Park, but throughout the entire Des Plaines Valley Council, which serves 42 communities in the area. According to a January report on the council’s website, enrollment in all levels of Scouting dropped between 2002 and 2006 from more than 8,500 members to fewer than 6,500.
One of the hurdles for Scout leaders to overcome is the “fierce competition” that exists for the free time of youngsters in affluent communities, according to the council. For the Des Plaines Valley Council in particular, a population shift is expected to increase the number of Asian and Hispanic residents more than 20 percent by 2011, creating a possible cultural barrier to enrollment.
“We need to diversify if we want to reach the families,” council administrators said in their report. “We need to explore the opportunity to bring minority people into the professional staff. It continues to be very difficult to communicate with minorities when we’re trying to do so in another language.”
But regardless of a Scout’s ethnic background, organization leaders say the activities help develop abilities within a young person that are necessary to becoming a responsible adult. Andrea Goddard oversees 11 towns, including Forest Park, in the Twin Lakes District within the Des Plaines Valley Council. Goddard could not immediately verify whether Scouting has been absent from Forest Park since 2000, but said overall the organization’s membership and message are still strong.
“It just encompasses a bunch of daily skills – money management, how to budget your time and manage resources,” Goddard said.
Cub Scouts, which caters to kids not yet old enough for Boy Scouts, requires a lot of parental involvement, said Goddard, further enhancing the relationship between Scouts and their primary role models.
Mark Gordon’s 8-year-old son is one of the kids enrolled in the resurging organization. As a boy, Gordon said he spent only a year in the Scouts, but he has thoroughly enjoyed reliving the experience with his son. The two worked on their pinewood derby car for Sunday’s race together and, though Gordon said he’s not the handiest person when it comes to tools, it was a lot of fun.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s stuff the kids don’t normally do anymore,” Gordon said.