As the Boy Scouts of America gets ready to admit gay youth, one Missouri organization has already broken away, but not because it favors tradition.
Oak Scouts is designed to be a safe space for everyone, regardless of faith or sexual orientation.
It all started when Kerry Kasten began guiding children’s meetings at a nature preserve and nondenominational Shamanic Wiccan church in Boonville. The more Kasten met with the children, the more she realized the need for a new type of scout troop.
“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.”
On Wednesday, the Boy Scouts of America will begin accepting openly gay youths, a historic change that has prompted some churches to drop their sponsorship of Scout units because of the new policy.
Since the change was approved in May, several alternative scouting groups have emerged. Trail Life USA, a Christian alternative that won’t allow openly gay youth, is expected to launch 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 with an emphasis on tolerance for all religious views.
Unlike the Boy Scouts, Oak Scouts troops are coed, and children of different ages are intermixed. Troops function somewhat autonomously — each troop creates its own badges and decides how often it will meet.
There are now five Oak Scouts troops located throughout Missouri, from Boonville to St. Charles.
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’s two children, Grant, 7, and Bronwyn, 4, have been members for about a year. Not only does she like that Oak Scouts troops are coed and allow children to get dirty and just be kids, but 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.
The Bollinger children have been able to make it to only a few meetings this year because the closest troop in Boonville is 50 minutes away from their home in Jefferson City.
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, who grew up in the Boy Scouts of America 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.”