Scouting in the region looks a lot different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Virginia Headwaters Council (VAHC), which serves over 3,000 boys and girls in the Shenandoah Valley region, shifted to a virtual model that flourished while stay-at-home orders were in place.
“We had to be very creative very quickly,” said Jim Battaglia, the CEO and scout executive of VAHC.
When the pandemic hit in March, the VAHC began virtual meetings at the board, district and unit levels and created virtual activities and events for scouts in the region and beyond.
Scouts were encouraged to do the activities they usually participate in at scout camp, just in different settings.
“They were excited because they still got to do scouting,” Battaglia said.
There are around 80 merit badges that scouts can obtain virtually. During the pandemic, troops virtually participated in cooking, character-building activities, camping and the most popular — game design events.
More than 2,300 youth engaged in online merit badges in 38 states across the U.S. and from countries including Japan and China.
Parents signed off on merit badges as well as rank advances.
“A lot of the parents were more engaged in the program because they’re the ones that were actually signing off on the requirements,” Battaglia said.
Scouts couldn’t receive merit badges in swimming, lifesaving or archery during the shutdown because these activities must be completed in person at an approved site.
Many of the in-person events scheduled for 2020 were canceled, but the council ensured troops wouldn’t miss the events entirely.
This year’s camporee, a regional camping event for scouts, was turned into a 24-hour virtual event. More than 1,000 people checked into the event to show off their cooking skills as well as the homemade shelters they set up in the backyard. Awards and patches were also given during the event, which created engagement for families.
“We are one of the only youth organizations that can switch to an online platform,” Battaglia said. “We can deliver roughly 80 percent of our program online unlike football, karate and baseball.”
A camporee is typically held geographically with around 600 to 800 people in attendance.
The Order of the Arrow lodge, located in Augusta County, hosted another virtual event. Out of the 270 Order of the Arrow lodges located in the nation, the local lodge was the first to host a virtual event.
The event, initially scheduled for a weekend in April, had more than 250 people in attendance. Honor scouts participated in games, scavenger hunts and educational seminars.
“The Order of the Arrow is based in the rich tradition of the Native Americans of our area,” Battaglia said. “We did a lot of education on how the Native Americans live, their culture and how we can use that for character building in leadership.”
Troop 84 of Stuarts Draft was able to resume in-person meetings after its sponsored organizations approved it. The local church where the troop meets is still closed to the public, but they’ve done outdoor activities like canoeing and scuba diving.
“We’re using our local park,” Battaglia said. “We’re doing the social distance with the masks so we’re able to do things together.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, a COVID-19 emergency response team has guided scouts on which activities scouts are permitted to do. The group consisted of a risk management team, attorneys and two University of Virginia doctors.
The VAHC virtual model was so successful that troops across the country were interested in it. Battaglia said other CEOs from troops across the country contacted him to learn more about the virtual program.
Other troops also took note of the work the local troop was doing for the community during the pandemic. The troop made sure to check on their neighbors in the community, either leaving notes with gloves on or calling and emailing those who felt at risk.
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the traditional way scouts operated, but the VAHC has grown since March.
“We’re finding a lot more volunteers and kids are registering with us because they can do programming that they can’t do with other social organizations,” Battaglia said.
The council is charging up for the upcoming recruitment period with a strong virtual recruiting presence.
In the next 60 days, they expect to recruit approximately 600 new families into the program, Battaglia said.