Boy Scouts have long earned merit badges for time-honored values and hobbies like public service, chess, and canoeing. On Saturday, in a park in the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, scouts from across New England came together to earn badges spurred by a more pressing concern: avoiding the coronavirus.
“It’s obviously a very serious thing,” said Cambridge Scout Nova Gatu Johnson, 14, “but I feel like some people might not understand … how you can prevent it from being passed on or how you can prevent yourself from getting it."
The event was originally intended to train scouts on how to handle themselves during dangerous large-scale events like natural disasters and public health emergencies. But it took on another slant as Covid-19 began to dominate headlines.
“We’ve actually been working on it since September, putting all the pieces together and making it happen,” said Darrin Johnson, who oversees Boy Scout programming in Northeastern Massachusetts. “We put a larger emphasis on the public health aspect of it because of the coronavirus.”
Latching onto Covid-19 proved a smart marketing move. Between the New England Base Camp in Milton and a secondary location in Woburn, the event pulled in almost 100 scouts.
“They came in from all over,” Johnson said. “We had scouts from New Hampshire come down. We had scouts from Rhode Island. Really did have ’em from all over the area. Somebody came up from the Cape.”
Scouts earned public health and emergency preparedness merit badges by taking part in discussions covering a wide range of topics, including how to identify and prevent illnesses and diseases like the coronavirus, Zika virus, and lead poisoning.
“The public health merit badge doesn’t have a requirement for coronavirus at all,” said Johnson. “What this allows us to do is put a specific focus on what is happening in the world today. It’s much more real.”
Youth also learned what to do in emergency situations. That included discussions on topics like automotive maintenance, water purification, and how government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had a representative at the event, react during public disasters.
Despite the sober topics of conversation — which included tracking common causes of death in Massachusetts — Johnson said it was easier to talk to youth than adults about those subjects.
“The fear isn’t there,” said Johnson. “They just want the information. … When you present the facts in a way that they understand, it doesn’t create fear. It creates an educated youth who is prepared.”
Although the training was publicized using a hot news topic, it was in service of the Boy Scouts’ old motto: “Be prepared.”
“The scouts, they look forward,” said Tom Hutton, an assistant scoutmaster in Westwood who helped facilitate the training. “They plan ahead and study up, and sometimes I’m surprised by the amount of knowledge they have.”