By Walden Knott
Photos by Janie Shelswell White
My Scouting journey began by tagging along to Cub Scout meetings with my younger brothers. It started off as something fun, and I had no idea it would take me where I am today. Starting in second grade, I would participate with the boys, running through the woods, wading through creeks, and scrambling over boulders. I built Pinewood Derby cars and raced them. I memorized the Scout Oath and Law. I learned knife safety and got my own knife. I did all these activities with the Pack and made friends, but being a girl meant I was always an “unofficial” member. It also meant I could not continue on the next step in Scouting: Boy Scouts. I envied my brothers for being able to be part of a troop and have so many opportunities: backpacking, whitewater rafting, skiing, and earning the coveted rank of Eagle. These were opportunities I was denied solely because of my gender.
I started searching for alternatives to Boy Scouts. It seems like the easy solution would be joining Girl Scouts. I did join Girl Scouts for a few years, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to build fires and go on high adventure trips, all the while working towards Eagle. They’re completely different organizations, and what I wanted was what Boy Scouts offered. Looking for answers, I met with my brothers’ scoutmaster, David Dowd of Troop 86. Being well-versed in the topic and having done further research, he presented another option. “Because I saw no opportunity for you at that time to become an Eagle Scout, I encouraged you to pursue the Venturing equivalent of Eagle Scout—the Summit Award,” Dowd recalled. The Summit Award is comparable to Eagle, so I did start to pursue it. Besides, as Dowd pointed out, it would probably be years before Boy Scouts would let girls join. As far as anyone knew, this was true.
Until just a few months later. I vividly remember sitting in my living room with the TV on in the background. Then the breaking news came on; Boy Scouts had unexpectedly announced girls would be allowed to join. It felt surreal. I would finally be able to do what I had been vying for most of my life. Fittingly, Boy Scouts changed its name to Scouts BSA. They also announced that troops would be either all-male or all-female, not co-ed. I wasn’t the only one who was ecstatic about this new opportunity. Girls all around Birmingham connected, from Gardendale to Mountain Brook to Hoover. But it couldn’t have happened without the support of some key players. Tye Warren, whose son is in Troop 86, was instrumental along with Dowd in organizing the new troop. They worked with Rich Webster, the rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal. Webster embraced the idea and worked to allow the new troop to meet at the church. Warren and Dowd also reached out to Katy Anderson, who would be the scoutmaster of the new troop. Anderson’s strong female leadership helped start the troop on the right foot. Together, we formed the first female Scouts BSA troop in Alabama. I was no longer an “unofficial” member, but a real member. Our troop, Troop 86 Green, immediately took off. I became the first head youth leader and worked hard to establish solid foundations for the new troop.
There were so many things I didn’t expect. The amount of organizing and coordinating was one of them. It could be overwhelming at times, but that’s the point: you need to be challenged so you can grow. Now girls will have these same opportunities for growth and leadership development as boys. Another thing I took note of was how tough these young girls are. For example, a backpacking trip was one of our first campouts, and the first campout ever for some of the troop. We hiked long miles and endured a fierce thunderstorm overnight, and we all had a great time. I think this shows that when girls get together and set their minds to something, there’s no stopping them. I couldn’t stop, either. I had to continually progress through the ranks so I could earn Eagle in time. Scouts BSA ends at age 18, and I had joined when I was 16, meaning I had under two years to earn Eagle. To put this in perspective, most Eagle Scouts earn the rank after four years. This brings me to my Eagle project. I didn’t begin with any specific ideas in mind, but I knew I wanted to benefit St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. I have attended St. Stephen’s my whole life and figured this would be a good opportunity to give back. Van Chaplin, who is heavily involved at St. Stephen’s, suggested a meditation garden. I loved this idea, and with Chaplin’s permission and guidance, I started planning. I wanted the meditation garden to be a quiet place where anyone would feel welcome to breathe, pray, and be in nature. These are all things that scouting places great importance on: nature, inclusivity, and reverence. Countless people helped me design and plan the garden, with even more support coming in the form of donations to buy materials. Despite all the planning and organizing, there were still obstacles when volunteers and I started building. We planted the bushes in the wrong spot and had to re-plant them. A copperhead got dangerously close to us. We disturbed a yellow jacket nest. Also, the coronavirus. However, we overcame these obstacles and ended up being extremely efficient. After three days of digging, moving stones, and planting, the garden was complete. My Eagle rank came soon after. The Eagle rank is more than an accomplishment. It’s a symbol of overcoming obstacles and learning lessons. In my case, I think the main lesson learned is that girls can do anything boys can (probably more).