(Editor’s note: The interviews and photos for this article were done and taken prior to the governor’s order limiting groups to no more than five people and the directive to maintain 6 feet of physical distance between people.)

For more than 100 years, the face of the Boy Scouts of America was that of young men.

Last year that changed, with the organization’s decision to have all-girl troops under the Scouts BSA program. While the program isn’t co-ed, two local troops — the boys Troop 116 with 17 members and girls Troop 831 with three members — hold joint meetings and work on projects together.

The Scouts learn the traditional survival skills such as starting a fire, reading a compass, finding clean, drinking water and using a knife safely as well as more modern survival skills like public speaking, time management, balancing a checkbook and leadership.

Scout Master for Troop 831 Shelly Szymanski leads a lesson in first aid at a Scout meeting of Troops 831 and 116 last month. The two troops are members of Scouts BSA, a program that includes both boys and girls as part of the traditional Boy Scouts of America organization.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

“The program is designed to help an individual become a productive member of our community,” said Bryan Burks, Troop 116 Scout Master. “There is so much they can do, skills they can really learn and use.”

The Scouts work on earning various merit badges in topics ranging from animal science to traffic safety. With 137 badges to chose from, there’s always something to catch a Scout’s interest, Burks said.

“All the requirements to be a Scout and earn the badges are the same,” he said. “The only difference between the handbooks for the girls and boys is the use of ‘she’ and ‘he.’ Other than that, they are literally the same.”

When BSA opened up the organization to girls, Burks was thrilled because it meant both his children could be involved in the activities.

His son, Bryan Burks Jr., 15, is a Life Scout; and younger sister, Findlay, 11, has been going to meetings, camp-outs and learning right along side him.

“A lot of people view scouting as a way for ‘boys to be men.’ That’s really old school thinking,” Burks said. “Scouting teaches boys and girls how to be a good person, to be a productive member of society.

“Yes, they learn survival skills like knife safety, but there’s also a lot of civic activities. They have to go to a government meeting and discuss what happened. Scouts also do a lot of projects that focus on conservation and serving the community.”

During camping trips, Scouts are responsible for setting up their own camps, deciding on the menu for the trip and cooking while on location.
Submitted photo

While he is the “Scout Master,” Burks said the adults aren’t really in charge of the troops.

“We can make suggestions. For instance, the Scouts decide where we go on our annual camp out,” he said. “We would suggest maybe not Carlsbad in July, but ultimately they decide.”

The troops are divided into patrols, based on ages, and each patrol has a senior patrol leader, along with an assistant patrol leader, bugler and chaplain’s aid. Burks said larger troops have other positions such as quartermaster.

Troop 116 is divided into three patrols — the senior patrol is the Atomic Blackbirds and the Atomic Waves are the middle-age group. The Atomic Bacon is the youngest Scouts.

Isiah Lopez, 11, the SPL for the Atomic Bacon, explained they wanted the name of the patrol to be about food.

“And bacon is good,” Lopez said. “Then we needed something for the coolness factor.”

Thus, the Atomic Bacon was born.

Patrol names can be changed at the whim of the members. Prior to being the Blackbirds, the patrol was the Almighty Bag, named after an inside joke born of necessity during a particularly rainy camping trip.

The girls troop has only one patrol, the Atomic Narwhals, AKA the unicorns of the sea, SPL Gabriella Montoya, 12, said. The other members of the troop are Scouts Findlay Burks, 10, and Alivia Walls, 11.

Both Montoya and Walls were Girl Scouts but the organization wasn’t a good fit for them.

“It felt like we were doing the same thing all the time,” Montoya said.

Troop 831 Scout Master Shelly Szymanski said both programs are very valuable, but very different.

“This program is very much about leadership and survival,” Szmanski said. “Once they learn basic survival skills, then they work on leadership; this program is full of young leaders.

Scout Findlay Burks, 11, saws through a small piece of wood during a skill building exercise. Burks is a member of Valencia County’s first all-girl Boy Scouts BSA troop — Troop 831.
Submitted photo

“These skills teach our girls that they can solve problems and do things for themselves. They don’t have to wait for someone else to fix things. They have the skills.”

Burks said she enjoys Scouting because she always learns something new.

“By learning first aid, if me or someone else gets hurt, I know what to do,” she said.

Like many Scouts, Walls appreciated the course on pocket knife safety.

“I learned how to cut correctly, and keep the knife pointed away from me,” Walls said.

Looking to the future the three girls all say their goal is to become Eagle Scouts, noting the achievement can help get a job and make connections as adults.

Findlay said her goal is to make Eagle Scout before her brother.

“I like to learn and I think this will be helpful to get a job,” Montoya said. “I want to become an Eagle Scout because I like to win.”

Alivia Walls, 11, is officially named a Scout and presented her patch by Atomic Narwhals Senior Patrol Leader Gabriella Montoya, 12, at a troop meeting in March.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Szymanski has two sons who have been Scouts and, over the years, she watched younger sisters of other Boy Scouts attend meetings and do all the same work as their brothers, learn all the same skills, but never get the recognition.

“I was seeing this interest and desire in our daughters, and they need a place to go,” she said.

The addition of the Scouts BSA program continues the single gender troops with all girl or all boy troops. The program continues as it always has, emphasizing the values of Scouting as outlined in the Scout Law — to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

Even while camping, the Scouts are engaged in projects, such as trail improvements at the Gorman Scout Camp in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe.
Submitted photo

According to its website, scouting.org, in 2019, for the first time in its 100-plus year history, the Boy Scouts of America opened to both young men and young women. Scouts BSA is a year-round program for boys and girls in fifth grade through high school that provides fun, adventure, learning, challenge and responsibility to help them become the best version of themselves.

All Scouts have the chance to earn Scouting’s highest rank, Eagle Scout.

Any girls, ages 11-17, interested in becoming a Scout, they can get more information by sending an email to [email protected]. Boys, ages 11-17, can send an email to [email protected].

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.