By Anna Lothson
Oak Park's Ranger Scouts may not have the same legacy as the Boy Scouts of America, but a handful of parents believe an alternative is better until the 100-year-old group changes its course on discriminating against gay scouts and leaders.
A year ago Rob Breymaier, an Oak Park parent and the executive director Oak Park Regional Housing Center, decided he wasn't going to let his son join a group which discriminated against anyone. He started his personal protest by turning in his own Eagle Scout medal, saying he didn't want to be part of the organization until all its anti-gay policies changed.
Soon after, he and other local parents decided to create their own group that mirrored the mission of the Boy Scouts, but allowed for anyone to join or be a leader. Thus, the Ranger Scouts were created right here in Oak Park. With one year under their sash, the group got 15 boys and a group of eager parents ready to bring the group back for another year.
"Every one of the parents, we all think the Scouts organization is great, but the policy is unacceptable," Breymaier said. "Our group is an alternative that is similar to scouting but everyone is welcome."
The parents banded together, created a specific curriculum, organized monthly meetings, taught basic scouting skills, did a service project and ended their season with a camping trip. They didn't offer badges yet, and aren't part of any national group, but the parents involved say they're proud to be teaching their kids that leadership means being inclusive and accepting.
Breymaier was fond of the Boy Scout organization he was part of, especially earning his Eagle badge. Once the policy changes, he said he'll be glad to reconsider his views of the group. Until then, however, it's all Ranger Scouts for him and his son. The recent announcement from the national BSA group allowing gay scouts, but not leaders, was a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough.
"It's also kind of absurd," Breymaier said. "It's even odder to take only youth but not adults. It's sending a message that [being gay] is still not OK."
Because adult scouts who are open about being gay aren't welcome in the group, an Eagle Scout who hits 18 and wants to remain a troop leader would no longer be welcomed under the policy. This doesn't settle well with Breymaier and the other parents.
"It says, once you're an Eagle, you're always an Eagle — unless you're gay," Breymaier added. "In a way, [the policy] is the worst of both worlds. It's not acceptable to folks who didn't want it or those who wanted it. The BSA only went half way. It creates this conflict for kids who want to make their way through Eagle only to be pushed out."
You can't get the official Eagle title with the Ranger Scouts, at least not yet, but Breymaier said the group teaches the same discipline and leadership skills that Boy Scouts are taught. Without any real recruiting, Ranger Scouts picked up 15 interested families and it expects to grow next year. Breymaier said they may look into adding merit badges and additional goals to reach.
Oak Park resident Terry Keleher was a Cub Scout, and when it came to getting his 9-year-old son involved, Keleher — who is gay — knew the Boy Scouts wasn't the right group for his family. Especially since this dad is acknowledged as a Ranger Scouts leader.
"I wanted to be part of an organization that was inclusive and affirming all people. Unfortunately the BSA has discriminatory policies in practice, which in good conscience I couldn't support," he said. "As a gay parent it's important for my family to be treated equally. I wanted to model for my son the practice of inclusion and equality."
Keleher wanted his son to get involved with kids his own age by giving him an opportunity to show his son different leadership styles seen in the traditional scouting organization. The Ranger Scouts held activities like a pinewood derby and helped out at the Food Pantry. The only difference? They just don't have a badge sewn on to prove their leadership.
They do, however, get life skills, confidence, and a sense of camaraderie; they also are able to follow the principles their families believe in.
"It really feels good to be in a community of people who are trying to be conscious of the values that we are imparting to our sons," Keleher said. "I am really happy for [my son] and this opportunity to give him some of the same things the BSA has to offer. There are many positive things that the BSA offers and we are doing many of those things."
Keleher said he understands the BSA is bombarded with multiple political influences, forcing them to juggle multiple conflicting voices. He hopes progress continues and they rid the group of mixed messages so every child and parent can be involved, regardless of sexual orientation. Until then, they have the Ranger Scouts.
David Willard, another Oak Park parent with three kids, also joined because he wanted his son to be part of a group that stood for equality. He grew up a Boy Scout and wanted a similar type of group for his 7-year-old son. For Willard, seeing the national news about the policy discussion made him really think twice before enrolling his son.
"The national news just sort of reminded me. I would have been more forgiving of it if it had not been so public," Willard said. "Maybe if they had not talked more publically about it. So I followed Oak Park people."
Because the group was so adamant about its age-old policy, confirming the Boy Scouts was a faith-based organization that wished to uphold those beliefs, Willard picked the Ranger Scouts.
"I liked everything about the group," Willard said. "Rob was a scoutmaster before. He has a lot of ideas how we could do things on a low budget without a lot of resources. …I've liked that it was non-denominational."
He believes his son benefited greatly from participating in this young man's organization that's centered on education and leadership skills he needs as a young scout as he grows up. Like the other dads, if the national policy changes fully, he may think about letting his son join the Boy Scouts, but not until real change happens.
"The BSA I care about seems to be hijacked," Willard said. "These are things I wasn't even raised to believe. I didn't occur to me later in life that the values don't align with what I believe. …I didn't start noticing until I lived in a community like Oak Park — which is very mindful of social justice."
If the BSA, however, doesn't change soon, Ranger Scouts may be the next new trend.
"It's up to the group to decide, but the longer we do this on our own, the less likely we are to be [part of the BSA]."