STANSBURY PARK — Girl Troop 314, the Sunflower Patrol, gathered at Parkview Park last week to learn all about backpacking in preparation for going to Scout camp and an overnight trip in August.

Scoutmaster Thomas Carlisle, along with Desiree Carlisle, his wife and assistant scoutmaster, taught the all-female group of 10 in uniform about the “rest step,” a hiking technique to conserve energy, along with what and how to pack. An awkward moment came when the scoutmaster held up an orange hand shovel and small roll of toilet paper to teach them a new concept.

“This is your toilet,” Thomas Carlisle said to the girls, who were suddenly still.

Using the hand shovel as a visual aid, he explained the need to “dig a 6-inch hole, do your duty and bury it.”

“Somebody at our past camp, we had a hole, they missed the hole and left it,” Carlisle said, to which the girls all responded in unison, “Ewwww.”

“We got it covered. We don’t want to attract animals,” he said. “Everybody needs to carry their own roll of toilet paper.”

The educational moment came six months after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended its longtime partnership with Boy Scouts of America. While there are fewer Scouting units in Utah, troops like the Sunflower Patrol, consisting of youth and leaders from diverse religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have come together in their respective communities to keep the Scouting spirit burning, according to Allen Endicott, executive of The Crossroads of the West Council.

“Scouting is alive and well,” he said. “While the council is smaller as of Jan. 1, hundreds of new units have been started throughout our area. Many of the units today are larger and providing a more traditional Scouting experience for their participating youth.”

Utah’s Scouting landscape

In March the Scouting officials in Utah merged three councils into one as part of its plan to adapt to a future without The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and about 400,000 youths, the Associated Press reported.

The three councils became the Crossroads of the West Council, based in Ogden. It currently has more than 7,000 traditional registered youth in more than 400 packs, troops and crews, and serves youth with various religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Some are legacy families who simply want their children to continue in a values-based program. Other families only want to see a son carry on the tradition of earning the Eagle Scout, Endicott said.

“Latter-day Saints are a significant and growing population, as are Catholic, Methodist and other faith-based organizations,” the Scouting executive said.

Adult leaders with diverse backgrounds come from the communities where they live, including many Latter-day Saints, he said.

“There are many great LDS scouters who have missed Scouting and want to get back involved in the program,” Endicott said.

The council has embraced the religious diversity as part of this new opportunity for growth, he said, and believes it will be a “visible force for good” in each community.

“As families, youth and adults participate and have a quality program experience, retention improves and units and membership increase,” Endicott said. “Growth and inviting all to participate and feel welcome in our program, regardless of their faith tradition, are significant goals for the council.”

A leader’s perspective

In recent years, the Scouts BSA program has opened its membership to all boys, regardless of sexual orientation, as well as girls.

West Valley residents Michelle Carter and her husband have appreciated the changes and acceptance of families with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. The Carters became involved in Scouting as adult leaders to support their son more than a decade ago. They enjoyed the program so much they continued as leaders in various capacities. Carter, who reverences a nature religion, is currently a leader with Cub Pack 3038, sponsored by Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Sugar House.

Webelos Scouts from Pack 3038 receive their Arrow of Light Award from Den Leader Mike Block with parents watching at Camp Tracy in Millcreek Canyon on June 16, 2020. | Michelle Carter

“Anybody who is interested, we will accept you regardless of race, religion, sex, whatever. We have a couple of families that are LGBT in the pack and the troop,” she said. “I like seeing the boys learn things they normally don’t learn at home. They are also learning respect for themselves, for others and for their country. ... This is a good program.”

In northern Utah’s Bear River Valley, the number of troops dropped from 38 to one when the church broke away from Scouting, said Paul Fowler, scoutmaster of Troop 126 in Tremonton. Today he and 16 experienced adult leaders supervise a group of 48 Scouts, ages 11-17. All are involved because they want to be and the program is operating as it was intended.

“I call it moving from the obligated to the passionate,” Fowler said. “We were obligated to be Scouting in the Latter-day Saint church, you know, here’s the program, you gotta do it. What’s left are the people that are passionate. In that regard, it’s a much better program. You’re dealing with a group of people that want to be there versus have to be there, and it makes all the difference.”

Rusty Shoemake, of Plain City, works with Cub Pack 724 because he wants to see his grandsons continue in the Scouting program. Of the 40 or so boys involved, about 60% are Latter-day Saints. Good things are happening thanks to fundraising and volunteer support from families and the community.

“We’ve been able to get some commitments from parents because we can’t function without them. This is a family organization, not a drop-off-at-the-curb Cub Scout Pack,” Shoemake said. “A lot people ask me why in the world I still do this? I’m 65 years old and still going out. I still have a fire inside me for this because I believe in it. I hope Pack 724 stays around forever and we can make a big difference in their lives.”

Meaning of God in Scouting

Boy Scouts of America continues to maintain that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God, Endicott said.

“A Scout’s duty to God is important,” he said.

“My role has been helping the girls understand how the meaning of God, when taught through the Boy Scouts of America, ties into their beliefs.” — Thomas Carlisle

As the scoutmaster, Thomas Carlisle wants to help the Sunflower Patrol understand that people worship, pray and believe differently. At the beginning of each Sunflower Patrol meeting, he will say “please prepare yourself in your normal manner for prayer.” This led to a teaching moment one night because they have a girl with agnostic beliefs in the troop.

“My role has been helping the girls understand how the meaning of God, when taught through the Boy Scouts of America, ties into their beliefs,” he said.

Scoutmaster Thomas Carlisle teaches backpacking tips during a Boy Scout meeting for the all-female Troop 314 at Parkview Park in Stansbury Park on Monday, July 6, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Fowler believes that along with promoting values and building character, being outdoors and away from the fast-paced digital world is what today’s youth need. Scouts can draw closer to God and spirituality in the great outdoors, he said.

In the last year and a half, Fowler’s witnessed Scouting help one young man overcome suicidal thoughts to find self-worth and become a leader among his peers.

“On a recent campout, at nighttime I asked the boys to close their eyes and describe their feelings,” Fowler said. “Their comments were things like, ‘It just feels peaceful and calm.’ It’s good to be in the mountains, nearer to God, and away from all the stress, the virus, whatever.”

Shoemake related a similar experience from years ago when he went on a 50-mile hike with Scouts in California’s Sierra Nevadas. As they rested next to a lake under a star-filled sky, a nonreligious young man whose father had recently died asked his leader, “What do you think is out there?” The sincere question led to a meaningful and memorable discussion, Shoemake said.

“If we hadn’t taken him on that trip he would have never had that experience,” the veteran Scout leader said. “I bet to this day, if you were to ask him about that, I bet he would remember that moment.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Scouts BSA as the Boy Scouts of America. The program changed its name in 2019.