Clad in beige uniforms, a crowd of boys sat in neat rows chatting among themselves, awaiting the start of their Court of Honor ceremony.
The group was gathered Monday in a log cabin at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, the sponsor for Boy Scouts Troop 16, to receive their merit badges.
While Scouting on a national level is facing numerous changes, including soon welcoming girls, Troop 16 also honors tradition.
Robert Bruner has been scoutmaster since 1986 and has stayed with the troop even though his two sons are no longer involved. Frank Norton Jr., assistant scoutmaster for Troop 16, was an Eagle Scout in the troop, then returned when his son joined about 15 years ago and also stayed.
Bruner said Scouting makes people well-rounded, and he likes seeing the boys benefit from the program.
“I enjoy seeing boys develop and take advantage of the opportunities that Scouting provides them,” he said. “Scouting is all about building character and fitness of different types. It’s also about developing good citizenship habits.”
Troop 16, which is active year-round, has about 75 boys who range in age from about 11 to 18. They come from all school systems in Hall County, and some are home-schooled students. Norton said when he was a Scout in the troop 40 years ago, about 30 boys participated.
There are 2,453 Scouts in Hall County, according to Trip Selman, Scout executive with Boy Scouts of America’s Northeast Georgia Council. The council, which serves 26 counties in the area, has more than 25,000 Scouts.
The Boy Scouts’ are undergoing some changes — girls will be welcome to join starting in June for Cub Scouts, which is for elementary school students, and starting next year for children in middle and high school.
Selman said the change was the result of conversations with parents who said they were bringing Scouts’ siblings to meetings anyway, and the girls wanted to join in.
Selman said girls who join will have their own single-gender group. Girls who want to join Cub Scouts would be in a separate den. Cub Scout troops, known as “packs,” are divided into dens, usually based on grade level.
Boy Scouts will be known as Scouts BSA starting next year, but Boy Scouts of America will not be changing its name, Selman said.
Bruner said he has not heard from any girls looking to join Gainesville’s Troop 16.
Selman said Boy Scouts still emphasizes outdoor activities — camping, swimming, hiking and first aid are the top merit badges — but the program is adapting to the high tech age, too. Scouts can earn badges in areas such as robotics and programming, or they can learn skills such as welding and auto maintenance.
Cole Bisson, a freshman at North Hall High School, said he has even used some of the skills taught in Scouting, including chemical reactions and scientific formulas, in his coursework at school. He has been a Scout for five years and said he enjoys hiking and camping. The troop wants to hike all the Georgian parts of the Appalachian Trail and has been steadily working toward that goal, he said. The personal connections have also been valuable for him.
“It’s a fun thing to do. It builds leadership skills, and I’ve met a lot of people through it who became my friends,” Bisson said.
For Brock Harris, a sophomore at Lakeview Academy and a Scout in Troop 16, Scouting is not just about the skills and activities, such as hiking or their sailing trip in the Florida Keys. He said he has also made valuable friendships through the troop.
“It’s not just normal Scouting skills, like knot tying and the wilderness stuff and first aid, although that has stuck with us, too,” Harris said. “A big part of this is the companionship. That’s definitely what keeps me coming back.”
Jackson Hickerson, a sophomore at Gainesville High School and another Scout, said Boy Scouts has taught him how to work with a group and be a leader.
“You have to learn (leadership) for yourself. Now, in school, if I have a group project, I know how to get things done,” he said.
Both Harris and Hickerson are working toward becoming Eagle Scouts, the Boy Scouts’ highest rank. Becoming an Eagle Scout requires 21 merit badges, remaining active in the troop, planning and developing a service project, and attending a leadership conference, according to the Boy Scouts of America website.
Jeff Terry is a parent with the troop. Two of his sons are currently involved and another graduated and became an Eagle Scout two years ago. Terry, who was a Scout himself, said he appreciates how the troop encourages boys to learn leadership skills and aim to become Eagle Scouts.
“They get them in here and say, ‘we want you to have fun, we want you to learn leadership, we want you to work hard to get your Eagle,’” Terry said.
This summer, the troop will spend a week at Camp Rainey Mountain in Clayton, where the Robert Bruner Scout Skills Area is under construction. More than 80 Eagle Scouts Bruner has worked with contributed to the project, Norton said at the troop’s meeting Monday.
Families who are interested in getting their children involved in Troop 16 can call Robert Bruner at 770-532-7207.