Disaffected Boy Scouts leader Danny Brooks is now the point man for Trail Life USA in Alaska, where he helps found and support local scouting troops that teach boys to love and serve God while enjoying his creation.
Brooks is one of the original members of Trail Life USA. He attended the group’s founding convention in September 2013 in which 1,200 former Boy Scouts officials from around the nation gathered in Nashville, Tenn. The meeting was called shortly after the Boy Scouts voted to change its longstanding policy and allow openly gay members. Since then the Boy Scouts have allowed openly gay adult scout leaders and biological girls who identify as boys. In 2017 they launched troops comprised of all girls, and earlier this year the organization changed its name from “Boy Scouts” to the gender-neutral “Scouts BSA.”
The radical shift in policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity has coincided with a continuing decline in overall membership, both nationally and in Alaska. The organization once boasted 6 million scouts in the late 1960s. It is nearing 2 million now. According to published membership numbers for Alaska, BSA lost more than 21 percent of its traditional scouts from 2009 to 2016.
In 2013 Brooks was among thousands of leaders who urged the Boy Scouts to hold the line on traditional Christian morality. Once BSA changed, an army of former scout leaders began looking for a solution.
“We were wondering what to do now that Boy Scouts has gone the way they have gone,” Brooks recalled. Following the Nashville convention, he returned to Alaska and began helping establish local Trail Life troops.
Nationally, Trail Life USA launched on Jan. 1, 2014, the same day the Boy Scouts began allowing openly gay scouts.
A RETURN TO SCOUTING’S ROOTS
The Trail Life movement represents a return to the founding principles of youth scouting as articulated by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a British army officer and founder of the modern youth scouting movement.
His best-selling book, “Aids to Scouting,” was published in 1899 and boldly states, “Scouting is nothing less than applied Christianity.”
When asked about where religion came into scouting, Baden-Powell once replied, “It does not come in at all. It is already there. It is a fundamental factor underlying scouting and guiding.”
“Scouting without God is not scouting,” Brooks said. “Trail Life has a clear foundation for our moral code. Christ is that foundation and we have a statement of faith that all adult leaders must sign and follow.”
A GROWING MOVEMENT
While Trail Life is still tiny compared to the much older BSA, its membership is steadily growing. There are more than 30,000 members in 800 troops across the country. Alaska has roughly 200 scouts spread across seven troops.
Kyle James helped launch the most recent Alaska Trial Life troop at The Crossing Church in Wasilla. He was inspired after reading a book this past summer that challenged men to accept leadership positions and mentor boys. Two months after launching the troop they have over 40 boys with more joining each week.
FATHERS ARE KEY
Dedicated fathers are key to the mission of Trail Life.
“A boy can’t learn to be a man without a man to show him,” Brooks observed. “I started this because I wanted to be beside my boys to show them to the best of my ability, and Trail Life gives dads that opportunity.”
For the boys without positive male role models, Brooks said Trail Life troops like the one he assists with in Eagle River help fill the void.
“In the troop I’m in there are boys who don’t have fathers in their lives,” he said. “But the fathers that come to Trail Life show them what a godly man looks like.”
As boys mature, they are challenged to step up and take leadership positions. They help organize activities, overnight camp outs and outdoor skills training.
“We are big on developing boys to be leaders as men,” James said of his Wasilla troop.
Fellow dad and Trail Life volunteer David Syzdek helps lead a troop at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage.
He said there is a great value in teaching older boys how to lead younger members.
“The older boys might be learning knife sharping or fire building, while the younger boys work on identifying animal tracks or leaves,” Syzdek said. “Being together the younger boys can look up to the older boys as role models.”
CHALLENGES FROM THE CULTURE
It’s no secret that Trail Life faces stiff challenges in its stated mission to “guide generations of courageous young men to honor God, lead with integrity, serve others, and experience outdoor adventure.”
“Too many boys are turning to virtual worlds of television, video games, digital media, and the internet to find realms they can conquer and areas where they can excel,” the national Trail Life website states. “The result of this virtual conquest is often apathy, apparent rebellion, or outright resistance to real-world challenge.”
“Even here in Alaska our kids are neck deep in the electronic age, but Trial Life gives them a chance to be boys,” Brooks said.
By engaging boys through camping, hiking and fishing, and helping them develop life-long skills in riflery, archery and canoeing, Trail life provides a foundation for later life.
CONNECTING TO THE CREATOR
Encountering the natural world is one of the greatest tools Trail Life has, according to Brooks. By taking boys into the wilderness they are able to see another, often deeper, side of life.
“How can it not impact boys by bringing them into the outdoors?” Brook said. “Nature is full of God’s beauty in its rawest form.”
Away from the distractions of a culture that often pushes faith to the margins the boys are able to learn about their Creator, his creation and their role in it, Brooks added.
“We teach the boys to take care of creation – not to just lord over it,” he said. “Boys really gravitate to that concept. It is part of their DNA to enjoy and take care of the outdoors.”
For Brooks, seeing boys enjoy God and each other is one of the greatest rewards.
“It is incredible to see the joy in their faces,” he said. “I get to see them grow and in particular grow close to God.”