As Boy Scouts welcome girls, Philly-area leaders offer praise and skepticism

Starting next year, girls can be Cub Scouts, and a program for older girls will be established by 2019, according to an announcement Wednesday that drew simultaneous praise from Boy Scout troop leaders and skepticism from the Girl Scouts.

“It’s great to be able to give girls a similar experience to what the boys in the Boy Scouting program are doing,” said David Latimer, 21, who lives in West Berlin and volunteers with Boy Scout Troop 251 in Winslow.

“It’s been a long time coming, especially with a lot of the changes that have happened recently,” he said, referencing the January decision by the Boy Scouts of America to welcome transgender boys.

The Boy Scouts already have some programs, such as the outdoor exploration “Venturing,” that allow boys and girls to participate. But the newest plan allows girls in first through fifth grades to be Cub Scouts in single-gender dens. Cub Scout packs, which comprise a number of dens, will have the option to remain single-gender or welcome both. The program for older girls will let them earn the rank of Eagle Scout.

Susan Agin, committee chair for Boy Scout Troop 61 in Manahawkin, N.J., said that in recent years, all family members have been able to attend her sons’ Cub Scout pack camping trips.

“I know that many Cub Scout sisters asked if they could be a Cub Scout, and parents would have enjoyed their daughter being able to participate as a member, not just as a sibling,” Agin, 52, said. “I see girls being allowed to join Cub Scouting as a positive change.”

Jim Frick, 62, an Eagle Scout from Ardmore, said he thinks Boy Scouts will have no problem adjusting. Parents who grew up with different Boy Scout guidelines, however, might, he said.

“Kids are a lot more adaptable than adults,” Frick said.

The announcement drew criticism from the Girl Scouts of the USA, which said it strained the century-old bond between the organizations. Girl Scout officials have suggested the Boy Scouts’ move was driven partly by a need to boost revenue.

In August, the president of the Girl Scouts accused the Boy Scouts of seeking to covertly recruit girls into their programs while disparaging the Girl Scouts’ operations.

“I formally request that your organization stay focused on serving the 90 percent of American boys not currently participating in Boy Scouts … and not consider expanding to recruit girls,” wrote Girl Scouts president Kathy Hopinkah Hannan in a letter to the Boy Scouts president, AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson.

The Boy Scouts board of directors, which unanimously approved the plan to allow girls to join, said the change was needed to provide more options for parents.

“We believe it is critical to evolve how our programs meet the needs of families interested in positive and lifelong experiences for their children,” said Michael Surbaugh, the Boy Scouts’ chief scout executive. “The values of Scouting — trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, brave and reverent, for example — are important for both young men and women.”

But the CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, which serves nearly 40,000 girls in a nine-county region, emphasized the benefits of an all-girl, girl-led program.

“Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are separate organizations founded to meet various developmental and leadership needs of girls and boys, respectively,” Kim Fraites-Dow said in a statement. “While some local Boy Scout councils are opening programs to girls, Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania will remain the best leadership experience for girls in this region. Girl Scouts … leads girls to discover a strong sense of self, connect with others, and value the power of diversity, and to identify needs in their community and take action to make the world a better place.”

The announcement followed many months of outreach by the Boy Scouts, which distributed videos and held meetings with the Boy Scout community to discuss the possibility of expanding girls’ participation beyond existing programs such as Venturing and Sea Scouts.

The Girl Scouts, founded in 1912, and the Boy Scouts, founded in 1910, are among several major youth organizations in the United States experiencing sharp drops in membership in recent years. Reasons include competition from youth sports leagues, a perception by some that they are old-fashioned, and busy schedules that overwhelm kids and parents. For some families, scouting programs that welcome both boys and girls could be convenient.

As of March, Girl Scouts reported 1,566,671 youth members and 749,008 adult members, down from just over 2 million youth members and about 800,000 adult members in 2014. The Boy Scouts say current youth participation is about 2.35 million, down from 2.6 million in 2013 and more than 4 million in peak years.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.