More than 45,000 Scouts from 169 countries attended the 24th World Scout Jamboree in the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia last month. Among them were four local scout leaders.
Every four years, Scouting organizations around the world — including the Boy Scouts of America — hold a world jamboree, described on the event’s website as “an educational event that brings together the world’s young people to promote peace and mutual understanding and to develop leadership and life skills.”
“You name it — an outdoor activity for scouting — and it was there. It was enhanced upon,” said Bud Lensch, a district committee member in the Boy Scouts’ Coastal Georgia Council and former scoutmaster.
Activities included rafting, scuba diving, BMX biking, skateboarding, zip-lining, fishing, archery and a wide a variety of sports from different countries, they said. Physical activity was not the only thing offered, however. Food stalls from around the globe and educational STEM-related activities were also available.
The event was a special one for American attendees, as it was the first time a world jamboree had taken place in the U.S. since 1967.
And it truly was a world jamboree, said Swen Knight, Den Leader of Pack 227 and Skipper of Sea Scout Ship 214. Their group of 54 people hailed from 18 different countries, he said, but rarely did language or cultural barriers get in the way.
“For the most part, everyone there could speak English, but they were a little leery of how well they understood the language,” Lensch said.
Just being in the country could offer new experiences for many, said Thomas Thrift, former scouting executive.
Thrift has helped to run the outdoor ethics program at multiple national and world jamborees. The goal of outdoor ethics was to introduce scouts to the aspects of camping in America that don’t apply to all countries and the impacts camping can have on the environment.
“We have everything from a static project where they walk through and see the different impacts, to these life-size bears,” Thrift said. “They can learn about some of the things we have as far as keeping food and things away from the animals and then also the difference between changing the behavior of an animal.”
For a surprising number of people, Thrift said the jamboree was the first time they had seen larger animals like deer and bears in person.
“Several of these countries, they didn’t know what that meant to have a bear or something big like that living where you’re camping. That was completely different for them. We actually had bears roaming through, and plenty of deer. For the kids to see deer walking through, some of these kids were in awe of nature,” Thrift said.
“I met one Australian scout,” Lensch chimed in. “And I said ‘Hey, you’re from the country with the most poisonous animals in the world, right?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but we don’t have any bears.’”
Knight helped run a set of Scottish games called the Friendship Tartan Games. Scouts participated in several games there, such as caber toss.
The other leaders found roles they fit well in, Knight said, while he’s still looking.
“I typically jump around to different groups every Jamboree. I don’t do the same thing just because I haven’t found a home,” Knight said.
As the first world jamboree held in the U.S. since 1967, the event included many uniquely American things.
For many scouts, the jamboree served as a first introduction to shooting sports.
“It was the first one that I’m aware of where they allowed rifle, shotgun and handgun to be part of the programming,” said Lensch, who served as a pistol instructor at the event.
“Because of that, we had kids from every nation you could name that came to shoot. Most of those countries have very strict rules and regulations on ownership of guns and the ability to shoot guns. So people from the Netherlands and Sweden and Liechtenstein and Luxembourg and Bolivia and Chile and you name it came because they don’t have the Second Amendment, and they were just tickled to be able to shoot a pistol. And not only to be able to shoot a pistol, but hit the targets downrange. The smiles on their faces, that was the reward.”
Lensch and Wayne Doke — local shooting sports instructor for the Boy Scouts and a shotgun instructor at the jamboree — both wagered nine in 10 scouts that came to the shooting ranges were foreign.
“We saw very few American Scouts come to shooting sports,” Lensch said. “And I think the reason that is is because they’re allowed to shoot rifle, shotgun and pistol at summer camps.”
For some, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
“They told us that. They told us, ‘This is going to be the only time in my life I’ll ever be able to shoot a pistol,’” Lensch said.
While he said many enjoyed it, Doke explained that safety was also the top concern at shooting ranges.
“It wasn’t like we turned them loose with firearms or anything,” Doke said.
Everyone who participated received one-on-one instruction, and all instructors had to be certified by the National Rifle Association and registered with the Boy Scouts of America, Doke said. Lensch added that everyone who wanted to shoot, whether they did shoot or not, had to go through a safety briefing in advance.
“And we had posters on the wall in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Japanese. It was a big poster with basic safety rules,” Doke said.
Lensch said participants at the pistol range alone expended more than 26,000 rounds of ammunition. Including the rifle and shotgun ranges, they fired nearly 1.5 million pistol and rifle rounds and shotgun shells.
“Our goal was to try to make sure the kids had a great time and they learned something that they could carry back,” Thrift said. “And that they bridge gaps with different countries so that the kids were able to be the true ambassadors, because they’re the ones that are really going to take things back to their countries and they’re really going to learn from each other and really put things into practice.”
Along with the physical activities, the jamboree featured educational exhibits on national and international problems, such as hunger, Thrift said.
Whichever county’s scouting organization is hosting the jamboree in a given year tends to use the opportunity to spread awareness of the major problems they’re facing as a country.
“It really brings things together and challenges the kids to learn from other countries what they’re dealing with and what their solutions might be to things,” Thrift said.
“Sweden hosted the jamboree back in 2011, and they did a great job showing a lot of the recycle things and bringing out a lot of that aspect. Japan, when we were over there for that one, we had the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima during that time, and so they brought out that cultural issue.
“In the United States, we’re bringing out cultural issues that we deal with here that people might be completely unaware of, like what we talked about with the shooting and guns. A large portion of the people never had a chance to do that before and will never have a chance again, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them.”
Making sure the foreign scouts learn as much as they could before they went home was something the Boy Scouts of America takes seriously, Thrift said, taking some of them on tours of the country before and after the jamboree.
“We call it a post-jamboree tour. We do pre- and post-jamboree tours. It’s really great, getting them out to the United States, not just in the bubble of the Jamboree, but the United States in other areas too. So people went to New York (City), people went to Miami, people went to Philadelphia, the Grand Canyon,” Thrift said.
Alaska was a popular choice, Knight said.
Overall, all four said it was an incredibly positive experience. Interacting with people from other countries and cultures was a valuable experience, Doke said, and one he’d recommend anyone jump on if they get the chance.
Attendees were provided with devices they wore on their wrists which, when passed near another, would exchange contact information. Doke hasn’t looked at the contact information he accrued. He had a good enough time with the friends he made the old-fashioned way, he said.
“Would I recommend young men and young ladies go to the next world jamboree in 2023? You better believe it,” Doke said.
Anyone willing to join the Boy Scouts of America program can attend both national and world jamborees. Adults who have no children in the program can participate as volunteers and instructors.