On a Friday night in a church basement in Washington Heights, scouts between the ages of 11 and 18 lined up to salute each other and say the pledge of allegiance. Janluis Sierra, a new scout at his first meeting, was the only boy not wearing a distinctive khaki-colored shirt.
“Don’t worry,” Scoutmaster Antonio Camacho announced. “Tonight you’re leaving with a uniform.”
Based on 179th St, Troop 729 is a large and very active troop in New York City. During monthly trips to the wilderness, scouts learn skills that emphasize self-reliance like buying food, cooking for themselves, and building a fire. They also go on international scouting trips. This year, a small group went to South Korea. Next year, they will go to Japan.
While New York scouting as a whole has declined dramatically over the last 15 years, Troop 729, has thrived against all odds through a combination of motivated leadership, aggressive fundraising, and a refusal to comply with the Boy Scouts’ most controversial policy – banning openly gay adult leaders. Troop 729 made a commitment soon after a 2000 Supreme Court decision that they would not discriminate based on sexual orientation, a move that mollified their sponsors and helped with future fundraising.
Sources of independent money are crucial. Troop 729 is an ethnically diverse group of boys – many of them Dominican, and many from single-family homes that struggle financially. Unlike other troops, they don’t rely on parent donations.
“This is a community without fathers,” said Scott Simpson, former scoutmaster, and a churchmaster at the Fort Washington Collegiate Church affiliated with 729. “It’s all single mothers, and they all work in service industry, and they all came from third world countries… and they don’t go camping.”
In the Dominican Republic, scouting is called “Exploradores” and is available only to the children of the very wealthy, a cultural difference that can confuse immigrant parents about opportunities for their children to participate in the U.S. Troop 729 requires an annual fee of $24 and asks an average of $30 per camping trip. Those costs, however, are heavily subsidized by the troop for scouts who cannot afford it.
Camacho spends around 30 hours a week – all volunteered – working on scout-related activities. His girlfriend, Lizzette Perez, does the same for Venture Prep, a scouting-like group for girls that often goes on trips with 729.
The troop is organized so that the younger boys learn about scouting from the older ones. “We’re actually raising the fathers for the next generation of scouts…that’s what makes us different,” says Simpson.
Michael Uriburu, 16, says that camping trips are his favorite part of scouting. “Not a lot of people have experienced that. I know a bunch of my friends have never been even upstate to go camping, which I find insane, because I do it almost every weekend.”
While Troop 729 has flourished, the rest of scouting in New York City has shrunk.
Between 2000 and 2010, Boy Scouts between the ages of 11 and 18 in New York City dropped from 7,080 members to 4,255, and troop numbers dropped from 419 to 241. As of 2013, the average size of a troop in the city was 20 scouts. Troop 729 has around 40 members.
“It’s a shame that the national Boy Scouting organization is fighting in America’s culture wars, because this has disproportionately hurt poor, inner-city troops,” said Seven Boswell, assistant scoutmaster for 729.
Just this year, a troop in Seattle was disbanded because of an openly gay scoutmaster. Despite its opposition to that policy, Troop 729 so far has been left to operate in peace by the Boy Scouts of America.
The scouts themselves say they don’t dwell on politics. They’re busy planning their next adventure.
“Boy Scouts definitely helped my life,” said Keith Gronsbell, 16, a member of 729 who commutes into Washington Heights from Long Island to attend meetings. “Coming here I have to learn morals and what I’m supposed to do in my community to actually help out, and not just be a bystander, be a contributor.”