I have served as a Young Women president as a Young Women's adviser and as a stake camp director. I am firmly converted to the notion that time away from civilization can be profoundly good for the soul. I have raised a son through the Young Men's program and my husband has served for the past 6 years as a Varsity Team (14-15 year old boys) coach in our ward. This is what I have learned about young men and young women in the church, leadership and their time in the great outdoors.
I do not live in the Intermountain West, so I cannot speak specifically to how those programs are run there. My experiences are from the East Coast and the Great Plains. But the handbooks we work with are the same.
Who Does What
The handbooks for leaders of both young women and young men of all ages are clear. Scouts and Young Men are supposed to be “boy led” programs that help young men prepare to become men of God. Both quorum work and scout work are supposed to be united together in that purpose, not run as a duality with different young men in different organizational leadership as they so often are. Young men, actively involved in scouting or not, are supposed to be the ones who come up with the weekly activities in counsel with their adult YM leaders, plan how to do them and carry them out. Their ability to do so and the breadth of their responsibilities in relationship to those of their adult leaders increases as they move from boy scouts to varsity team to venture crew, from deacon, to teacher to priest quorums.
The handbooks also are clear that the purpose of the young women program is to prepare young women to become women of God. As part of that process they are supposed to be the ones who envision their activities, and plan and carry them out in council with their adult leaders. And likewise, the breadth of their responsibilities and projects are designed to increase as they move from Beehive, to Mia Maid and Laurel.
However, in both Young Men and in Young Women programs, it is rare that it works that way. Why? For the same reason that many parents of young children on family camping trips do the dishes themselves: it is easier and takes less time and is more thorough to do the work yourself than to teach a young person how to do it. It is hard to make the time to do that leadership training. It is easier to just run a program than it is to work with girls to help them create ways to transform their lives. And so way too many leaders simply do the planning themselves, and then hand out tasks. And, even worse, when some young man or young woman comes up with a very grand idea, instead of taking the time to help that young person learn how to make it happen, they decide that it's too big a project and discourage the idea. This happens in both young men and young women programs.
Scout Camp and Girls Camp
Time out of doors is good for the soul. Scout camp, if it's done right, sometimes works fairly well for 12-13 year old boys. A few 14 year olds who have not yet started high school may sometimes attend as well, but by the time a boy is 15 there is no way he's interested in scout camp. Girls camp, if done right, can also work well. It is a little more flexible in its structure and has activities that are designed to increase in complexity with each year, so though attrition does occur, 15 year olds are still in attendance. But the 16-17 year old attendance can be counted on one hand.
Some wards or stakes fight this downward trend of young men involvement in the outdoors by organizing “High Adventure” activities for the young men. Again, it is often organized by adults, with the young men being handed assignments to bring stuff. If an adult didn't think of High Adventure as something that needed to be done, it wouldn't happen. And no young men volunteer to organize it. They generally assume that it's part of the program that the adults will make happen.
The Junior Leader program at Girls Camp was originally created as a leadership program for 16 and 17 year old young women. However, nowadays, in a far-flung stake, it rarely is put together on a stake basis in a way that meets those goals, and the young women sense that and vote with their feet.
Some Ways Some People Have Changed Things
I have lived in two wards and watched two more where individuals have been able to make effective and promising changes to the above scenarios. It takes work, it takes vision, and it takes paying attention to the handbooks and it's exciting to watch. Here is what I've seen:
One stake invited a member of the church YM presidency to come speak about scouting. The young men leaders in attendance laughed out loud when he stated that scouting should be “a neighborhood organization” due to the fact that most boys in the stake traveled many miles to attend scout meetings, but a couple of the wards caught the vision the unity of purpose of boy led scouting, quorum work, and leadership. They called varsity scout coaches and, if they could manage it, a venture crew leader too, and worked to teach them how to run a boy led program that dovetailed well with the boys priesthood quorum objectives. Mutual nights changed gradually from one where the 12-13 year olds were in scout meetings, the 14-15 year olds tried to avoid them, and the 16 year olds who showed up played basketball, to programs and activities that were created and carried out (with good adult support) by young men in distinct age groups regardless of their interest or disinterest in scouting advancement. And high adventure was planned and carried out on a ward level under the direction of young teachers and priests.
One ward had a Young Women presidency who recognized that Girls Camp was not filling the needs of their older girls and started talking to them about what they thought would be better. The girls floated the idea of a week long canoe trip and so the idea began to take shape. The adult leaders spent countless hours helping young women to figure out how to make it happen. The Mia Maids and Beehives wanted in too and so the ward let me (the stake camp director) know that they wouldn't be at Girls Camp that year because they'd be canoeing instead. That was fine with me (though I had to persuade the Stake YW president that this was perfectly fine...people sometimes feel let down when someone doesn't come to something they've put a lot of effort into.)
Another ward had a well organized scout troop that went to Philmont one year and came back awed and inspired by their experience. A number of young women expressed jealousy and a wish to do so as well. Their adult leaders and parents heard them and instead of saying “no we can't” said “why not”? They got the girls to research Venture scouting, a program that would enable them to register as scouts and organize a Philmont trip. The girls figured out what needed to be done, and with the support and resources of their leaders, figured out a way to do that and spent the rest of the next year and a half learning and participating in regional scout activities as part of their Personal Progress projects, culminating in their own Philmont trek two years after they started planning (reserving a Philmont trek needs to be reserved long in advance). It was the girls inspired idea and the leaders and parents assisted them.
My experiences have led me to believe that it is not the programs of the church that need to change, it is the the minds and vision and dedicated time of ward and branch youth leaders and parents. The handbooks teach the principle of programs that teach and encourage the development of character, spiritual awareness and understanding of God's work and the skills required to help, envisioned and carried out by young people, supported by adults. Our problem is that we adults (parents, teachers, scout leaders, advisers, presidencies) do not have the vision of training young people as leaders who are on their way to becoming men and women of God, nor do we feel like we can make the time to do that. So we create adult run programs. We run programs instead of opportunities to practice, in a supportive environment, early learning about what it means to be prepared to lead and act in the service of God and your fellow beings. The handbooks could change and make both the young women and young men programs exactly the same in structure and the problems found in both would still persist.
This situation is, in reality, one that will only change as we dedicated adult women change, volunteer to assist, and tell a YW president we would be happy to help a girl create something that that inspired girl feels needs to happen, instead of just getting upset when a YW president or adviser feels too overwhelmed to tackle it along with everything else she feels she's supposed to do. We can open the eyes of our daughters about how they can use Personal Progress projects in ways that support their good dreams instead of just doing what they've seen others do. We can teach young women how to determine needs, seek inspiration and then create, lead and carry out plans to do good whether or not they have a specific leadership calling. And then can we lend the support they need as they struggle to learn how to do that.
It will only change when men catch the vision and work as Quorum Advisers, Assistant Scoutmasters, Varsity Scout coaches and Venture Crew leaders, take seriously the training the church has about how scouting can be employed as a way to further the objectives the boys have developed in their quorums, and then, with parents, put the time and effort to teach boys how to make YM/scouting work the way they are supposed to: led by boys who are mentored by men of God.
Though changes in existing programs as outlined in the handbooks might be interesting to consider or marginally helpful, I do not believe that is the the answer to our youth program challenges. One could make a world of changes to the programs in the handbooks and still the obstacles to youth leadership and youth-led programs and young people envisioning and creating and leading good experiences would exist. I believe that the key answer is a change in us adults who have our boots on the ground in our wards and branches.