Times are changing for the Boy Scouts of America Great Rivers Council — with female scouts, a growing camp and Invention Campus, and a new office and Adventure Center. It’s no surprise that an Eagle Scout is leading the charge.
COMO Magazine’s 20 under 40 recognizes professionals who excel in their industry, are company leaders, and are good community citizens. It’s only natural that John Fabsits made the list in 2011. After all, he’s an Eagle Scout in an organization where excellence, leadership, and helping others are a way of life.
John’s first job out of college was with the Boy Scouts of America Great Rivers Council in Columbia. He worked his way up through the ranks for the next 10 years before taking a new job as director of field service and chief operating officer for the Lake Erie Council in Cleveland, Ohio. It was solid career preparation for the scout, who would return to the Great Rivers Council in January 2020 to serve as its CEO. And if pandemic leadership were one of the BSA’s 136 merit badges, John would have earned it.
Looking for a Few Good Youths
The Great Rivers Council encompasses 33 counties in central and northeast Missouri, typically serving more than 5,000 scouting youth. Those numbers are down due to the pandemic. Although the council put some events and merit badges online, in-person meetings continue to be difficult in many places. The biggest recruitment hindrance is lack of access to scouting’s best place to find potential scouts — schools.
“Normally, we go into the schools where we talk to youth in an assembly, in a lunch room or cafeteria,” John says. “We couldn’t do that in the fall of 2020. Scouting is still challenged to find ways to engage with families and youth outside of schools. We’re doing some things online to promote scouting, as well as billboards and television, but our connection has always been through the schools. We’re hoping that with the vaccine available to youth, this spring may look a lot better for us.”
Recruitment numbers were down 75% in fall 2020. Although they’re higher now, they’re still down 40% to 50% compared to 2019 numbers.
It Takes More than Popcorn
Funding for the council is local. It receives no government grants or money from the national scouting organization. The organization raises its own $1.5 million annual operating budget which, like recruitment, took a hit during the pandemic.
Nearly 30% comes from the Friends of Scouting annual fundraiser. Of course, there’s also popcorn. Scouts selling popcorn, sausage, and cheese isn’t just designed to raise money; true to the scouting philosophy, product sales teach scouts how to ask others for support.
A sporting clays tournament attracted 400 shooters in 2021 and raised about $100,000. The council hosts annual golf tournaments in Columbia and Jefferson City and a holiday auction. The auction went online during the pandemic and continues to be virtual. Districts host local fundraising events as well, with all money gathered and distributed by the council’s central office.
Volunteer-raising is also a challenge. John calls the 2,500 leaders in the Great Rivers Council and the 65 members on its board of directors “amazing.” They’re always looking for more.
A Cub Becomes an Eagle
There are ranks in scouting. In Cub Scouting, ranks are based on grades in school: Lion Cubs are kindergartners, who then move to Tiger Cubs in first grade, Wolf Cubs in second, Bear Cubs in third, and Webelos in fourth and fifth grade.
Venturing, Exploring, and Sea Scouts are open to those ages 13½ to 21. Scouts BSA is for those ages 10 to 18. There are eight ranks scouts move through as they complete certain requirements. The seventh rank is Life Scout, and much of what a scout does there qualifies them for the highest rank in Scouting BSA, Eagle Scout.
Only about 4% of all scouts nationally and 6% in Columbia achieve this rank. Each rank requires earning a certain number of merit badges, but Eagle Scout requires the most, at 21. Scouts must also ask for personal recommendations, serve at least six months in a scouting or community leadership role, and devise and complete a major community service project. Soaring with the eagles is quite an achievement.
Not Your Father’s Summer Camp
Scouts have a lot of support as they move through the ranks, from council staff, scout leaders, and even from MU and Linn Technical College, which host Merit Badge University events where scouts can earn some badges in a single day. More than 1,200 scouts and leaders attended the MU event in 2021.
Then there’s the 450-acre Lake of the Ozarks Scout Reservation, which isn’t your father’s summer camp (although your father might have gone to camp there, as the reservation has been operating since 1965). Besides miles of trails, waterfront, and camping facilities, the reservation boasts things like a zero-entry pool, a zip line, scuba certification, and family adventure camps.
The reservation is also home to the Sinquefield Invention Campus, a state-of-the-art operation unmatched by any scouting organization in the country. The campus hosts the Invention Lab, Program Building, Metalworking Building, and the soon-to-be completed Skills & Trade Building.
John says scouting started the concept of workforce development. Scouts learn and earn merit badges in things like metal working, welding, sewing, engineering, pottery, laser-etching, composite materials, woodworking, and more. The latest addition will teach scouts trade skills in electricity, plumbing, small engine repair, and marine mechanics.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Right now, you’ll probably find John back at the office in downtown Columbia, but not for long. He’s packing for his next adventure — the Scouting Adventure Center. John says it’s a phenomenal opportunity for the Great Rivers Council, Columbia, and Mid-Missouri.
“We’ve been on Fay Street since the 1970s, and while it has served us well, it is in need of work and repair, so it’s time to either renovate or move,” John says. “It began as a conversation with Brenda and Larry Potterfield in August 2020 about our sporting clay tournament. A few months later, they contributed the Lincoln Building on the MidwayUSA campus, which housed their call and contact center, to the Great Rivers Council.”
The current office has 4,000 square feet of space. The Scouting Adventure Center has 4,000 square feet of move-in ready office space plus 9,000 square feet of programming space that John says will help them engage families and youth in scouting and, he hopes, attract new members and volunteers.
Plans for the facility include an indoor climbing wall, made possible by a grant from Veterans United and other donors. There will also be an audio/visual studio to learn animation and video; an engineering and computer science lab to work with drones, robotics, and computer-assisted design; a science lab; and a health area teaching emergency preparedness, public health and safety, search and recovery, and wilderness survival. Outside will feature an archery range, climbing boulders, raised garden beds, a fire pit, and a cooking pavilion with a pizza oven.
“It’s a transformational gift in how we operate,” John says. “When you’re on a highway, people are going to see you and they’re going to stop. Schools are very important to us, but we learned through the pandemic that we have to have other avenues to attract and recruit youth. This facility will do that.”
Plans are to move the administrative team and retail store, which sells scouting gear, in March. The rest will be added over the next several months as the council raises the money necessary to add them.
“We’re so grateful to the Potterfields for believing in the scouting program,” John says. And believe they do. Their son is an Eagle Scout, and their grandchildren are involved in Scouting.
In 2018, Cub Scouting opened to girls, and in 2019, Scouting BSA followed. Currently, about 15% of the current scouting membership is female.
“All youth are welcome in scouting, first and foremost,” John says. “They have to accept the values of scouting, and if they don’t, they probably shouldn’t be here. If they do, scouting can be life-changing.”
Two young women from Columbia not only accepted those values, but took on the challenge of being among the first women in the country to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Sophie Froese and Serena Anderson earned the rank in less than two years. Because there are seven ranks before Eagle Scout, that’s quite a feat. “The biggest pressure I felt was the time constraint,” says Sophie. “Traditionally, scouts have many years to work through a succession of ranks to Eagle Scout. I had no downtime between rank advancement. By the time I got to the end of my scouting journey, I had to work really fast to be in the inaugural female class of Eagle Scouts nationwide.”
Sophie, a sophomore at MU majoring in art and psychology, began that journey in the middle of finals in December 2020. She found herself overwhelmed and under tremendous pressure. Her dad, an Eagle Scout with no sons, welcomed the chance to support his daughter in her efforts.
“I knew I was going to do it because I knew it was worth doing,” Sophie says. “It was nice to know I could look to my dad for advice and support.”
For Serena, now a senior at Tolton Catholic High School, family tradition encouraged her journey. Serena’s dad is a Life Scout, and her older brother is an Eagle Scout. Her mom, whose dad was an Eagle Scout, looked forward to being the parent of one of the first females to achieve the rank.
“Joining scouting as a female was not that different from what a male would experience,” Serena said. “I went through the same process as my older brother went through to rank up and experience all there is to experience in the scouting program.”
Serena hopes that the valuable skills she learned in scouting, as well as being able to put “Eagle Scout” on her resume, will benefit her throughout her life.
Sophie believes being an Eagle Scout has poised her for success.
“I can handle whatever I’m faced with. I learned how to pace myself and learned what my limits are. I learned how to delegate and step back,” Sophie says. “The scouting leadership model is servant leadership. It is your job as a leader to serve others and facilitate growth. This can mean stepping back and letting those you lead take a role so that in the end, everyone succeeds.”
Eagle Scouts are given a pin they can use to honor a mentor. Sophie gave hers to John Young, who “embodied the scout spirit in everything he did,” she says. John recently passed away, but Sophie is forever grateful to him.
The scouting tradition continues, with members, volunteers, and entire families engaged in helping youth become trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, friendly, brave, clean, and reverent. That’s something worth aspiring to, no matter your gender.