Scouting alternatives draw UU youth

Scouting alternatives draw UU youth

Navigators and SpiralScouts offer inclusive programs.
Donald E. Skinner


Two Sunday afternoons a month the Mojave Desert SpiralScouts Circle No. 147 takes over the building of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Las Vegas. Kids cluster together, working on camping badges and chattering about their latest field trip.

On the other side of the country, in a New York City elementary school, young Navigators meet after school to practice wilderness skills and plan community service projects and outdoor adventures. Their leader is a Unitarian Universalist who formerly led a Boy Scout troop.

SpiralScouts and Navigators USA are two alternatives that have arisen in the wake of decisions by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in 1999 to exclude boys and leaders who were gay or did not believe in a supreme being.

The Unitarian Universalist Association parted ways with the BSA over those two issues after the BSA withdrew approval in May 1999 for a religious emblem the UUA awarded to Scouts who had earned it through a program of study in their congregations. Since that time some UUs have wanted a more inclusive youth program. SpiralScouts and Navigators are two such groups.

Neither group is officially affiliated with the UUA, although UUs may lead them and participate in them. Some groups meet in UU buildings or are sponsored by individual UU congregations. Other UUs continue to participate in Boy Scout programs.

SpiralScouts, begun in 2001, was organized as a youth program of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, a Wiccan group in the state of Washington. It is now run independently of the church. SpiralScouts is directed primarily at children and youth whose families identify as Wiccan or Pagan and with Earth-centered spirituality, but it is open to anyone, says Janet Callahan, SpiralScouts International program director.

Wicca is an Earth-centered religion based on pre-Christian traditions from Northern Europe. It contains references to Celtic deities, symbols, and seasonal days of celebration that reverence the Earth.

Callahan says there are currently more than 80 chartered SpiralScouts circles or “hearths” in 20 states. A hearth is an individual family that does not have a circle nearby. She said a half-dozen circles are either affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations or have a UU as leader.

SpiralScouts is for boys and girls ages 3 to 18. Circles are required to have both a male and female leader.

The Las Vegas SpiralScouts Circle is sponsored jointly by the UU Congregation of Las Vegas and the Agave Spirit Grove, a chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Two of the leaders of the circle are members of both the Pagan group and the congregation.

Krista Cielo-Cooney, a leader of the Las Vegas circle, said the program, which was formed there in August 2006, has 20 scouts. “Most of the families are Pagan or of mixed faith. SpiralScouts is a better fit for them than either the Boy or Girl Scouts. Some of our families have been waiting forever for this to get going.”

Jess Baribault, a member of the UU Congregation in Milford, N.H., began looking for “family-friendly Pagan activities” five years ago when her son was a toddler. She found the SpiralScouts website and she started Silverling Circle No. 58 at Antrim, where she lives. Eight other families have joined.

The group sometimes meets at her home, but most often it gathers for field trips, she said. “We’ve been to see a maple sugaring demonstration and we used that as an opportunity to talk about the gifts that trees give us and we connected it to the Spring Equinox and Ostara.” Ostara is a Pagan holiday from which the term Easter is derived.

The circle goes camping and members work on badges throughout the year. On October 27, 2007, the circle will hold a harvest festival along with food and clothing collections at the Peterborough UU Church in New Hampshire.

“I like the fact SpiralScouts is inclusive and accepting and respectful of all paths,” said Baribault. “It’s very much in line with UU principles. And it includes girls as well as boys.”

Paint Branch Circle No. 164 of SpiralScouts was chartered in November 2006 in Maryland. It meets at, but is not sponsored by, Paint Branch UU Church at Adelphi.

“We had always liked the idea of a group for both boys and girls,” said Paul Richards, a friend of the church. “Unitarian Universalists don’t seem to have a lot of kid-oriented organizations beyond OWL [the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality education curricula] and the religious education programs. As far as fun and camping, and outdoor activities, this seems like a wonderful opportunity for kids to get out and do things without the constraints of either the Boy or Girl Scouts.”

Richards said he was a Boy Scout for many years. “That program has value, but I think that non-Christians as well as those who are gay are not as welcome. It just seems like they are excluding a lot of people.”

The circle is supported by a Washington, D.C.-area Pagan community, said Richards. “It’s something fun and educational for the children, it teaches them outdoor skills, mythology and lore, and about alternative religions, and it’s a way they can congregate and have fun.”

Another Scouting alternative is Navigators USA. It is in development, but “not ready for prime time,” says Robin Bossert, a member of All Souls Church Unitarian in New York City. He developed the Navigators concept in 2002 after the church, which had long sponsored a Boy Scout unit, terminated its BSA charter in 2002. Bossert, the former troop's Scoutmaster, came up with the concept of Navigators and created a unit that was first located in East Harlem, then at Fourth Universalist Society, and now in a public school.

He said he has decided that Navigators should not be affiliated with any philosophical, theological, or religious tradition. “We want to keep it simple and secular.” Currently he has one “Junior Navigator” group for youth from ages 7 to 10. Senior Navigator groups, when they are formed, will be for youth 11 to 18.

He added, “We are moving away from the Scouting model, which carries its own baggage. Our mission is to fight what has been coined ‘Nature Deficit Disorder.’ We simply want to give children unstructured time in nature to grow, create, and discover themselves and others.”

The group’s mission is to establish an educational and outdoor activity program for children and youth that will be secular and coeducational and will not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation.

He added, “Last year was very successful for our program, with over 23 boys and girls and their parents participating in camping, hiking, skiing, and other activities throughout the year. Most of our children showed signs of attention deficit and conflict. But when we got them out on trips their behavior improved tremendously and continued throughout the year. We are not sure how we will meet the demand this year.”

Another chapter is being developed in New York City, Bossert said. The Navigator Handbook is in the final stages of development and will be published next year by McGraw-Hill.

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