One Missouri organization is breaking away from the traditional scouting model of the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA.
It’s called the Oak Scouts, and it’s designed to be a safe space for everyone, regardless of faith or sexual orientation.
It all started when Kerry Kasten started guiding children’s meetings at Oak Spirit Sanctuary, a nature preserve and nondenominational Shamanic Wiccan church in Boonville. The more Kasten met with these children, the more she realized the need for a new type of scout troop.
“As it developed further I realized there are all these parents out there who were not wanting to go into the mainstream scouting program due to disagreements in faith and sexual orientation,” Kasten said. “They wanted to go somewhere they felt safe being gay or pagan or not mainstream and express how they felt.”
It’s not the only alternative group out there. Within a few months of the Boy Scouts’ decision to change its membership policy to allow openly gay youth to join, plans began for a Christian alternative that won’t allow openly gay youth. Trail Life USA is set to start in January, with the motto, “walk worthy.”
But while Trail Life is focused on the values of a specific group, the Oak Scouts focus on diversity.
There are now five Oak Scouts troops located throughout Missouri, from Boonville to St. Charles.
Although they are all part of Oak Scouts, Kasten said each troop is different. Each group decides on its own name and creates its own badges. But all troops must include the badges of first aid, recycling, helping hands and sewing.
Children can join as young as 2 years old.
“If you look at my scout troops when they are all in same room, they literally look like the rainbow of the world – every color, every race, every religion, every sexual orientation you can think of, all coinciding,” Kasten said. “And that’s what the world needs to be.”
Paula Bollinger and her family have been members of Oak Scouts for about a year. They have only been able to make it to a few meetings this year because they live in Jefferson City. The closest troop is the one in Boonville, 50 minutes away.
Bollinger has two children, Grant, 7, and Bronwyn, 4. Not only does she like that Oak Scouts troops are co-ed and allow children to get dirty and just be kids, but they they are nature centered, and all about stewardship.
“Arts and crafts, you can get that other places, but not necessarily a medicinal hike,” Bollinger said.
She thinks other parents in her area would enjoy Oak Scouts, but the financial burden of each trip also causes others to turn away.
For Bollinger’s family, every meeting requires an overnight stay. With that, the cost of fuel and other activities during their trip, participation is a financial “stressor.”
But she plans to continue taking her children to Oak Scouts and hopes that one day there will be an Oak Scouts camp because of the values they uphold.
“It’s what I want them to be as adults, to embrace diversity and to not isolate themselves from other belief systems and cultures,” Bollinger said. “It’s a world of discovery. So I want them to learn about other cultures and other religions and other ways of life and not just be isolated.”
Mark Brown grew up in the Boy Scouts of America and likes that the organization reacquaints children with nature. But over the years, he said, “the world had changed and they didn’t catch up.”
Brown now sponsors an Oak Scouts troop called the Garden Gnomes, in St. Louis. With Catholics, atheists and Pagans, the group is an example of the diversity fostered by the Oak Scouts.
“Even here in America we have, what, about 325 million people?” Brown said. “No two people are alike, and so there is all this diversity and that should be celebrated not squashed.”