This Whitsuntide weekend, 30,000 scouts aged seven to 20 will be pitching tents all over Switzerland for a three-day campout-and the entire event will be run by the youngsters themselves, without a single parent in sight.This content was published on June 1, 2001 - 10:15
"Compared to other countries, we have very young scout leaders," says Stan Frossard of the Swiss Scout and Guide Movement. "But it has always been that way - our goal is for young people to learn to be responsible for themselves and each other."
Today there are around 56,000 Swiss scouts, of whom 60 per cent are boys and 40 per cent girls in both mixed and single-sex groups. The youngsters are organised into over 700 divisions, and they perform all leadership functions themselves.
By contrast, the 1.1 million scouts and guides in the UK and the five million scouts in the US are led almost exclusively by adults over 30: parents or even grandparents. One reason is because "by the age of 18 most kids have started a new life without scouting", according to England's Nick Pedley, an assistant cub leader.
Swiss children often remain scouts until they are in the 20s. Sibille Bühlmann, for instance, joined a co-ed group of Swiss scouts at 12. By 14 she was a "Venner", an assistant leader responsible for seven kids aged 10-14 under the direction of three boys in their late teens.
At 18 Bühlmann and two other youngsters became leaders themselves, with 30 kids and four Venners under them, and by the time she quit the scouts last year at the age of 22 to study physiotherapy, Bühlmann had been the head of a corps of 370 scouts.
Like most Swiss scouting leaders, Bühlmann was well prepared for her responsibilities. At 17, for example, in order to be permitted to organise and supervise her troop's Whitsuntide camping trip ("Pfingst Lager" or "PfiLa") she had to take a weeklong course.
"We learned how to plan activities for the kids, organise a camp, and handle parents," she explains. The lessons also dealt with insurance and other administrative requirements.
One of the most important events at each year's PfiLa is an initiation rite and "baptism" for new members, who are given a special scouting nickname by their leaders.
Last year at his first PfiLa, Thomas Weber (11) was christened "Carados", after a Pokémon figure. "It was pretty scary," admits Thomas about his initiation ordeal, which involved, among other things, being tied up and threatened with a hot branding iron.
Thomas started scouts at seven as a Wolf Cub and by 10 was the youth-leader of his "pack" of 10 boys and girls. Now he's in his second year as a real scout.
"Scouting is cool," he says. "I'm one of the youngest in my group, and that means I get ordered around a lot, but I have a great time. As soon as I can I'll become a Venner and then a leader."
Becoming a leader was also the goal of Barbara Rushton. By 15 she was directing all three of her village's scouting groups. "Officially I was too young for that job," she explains, "but there wasn't anyone else in the village to do it."
"Swiss scouts still go on hike," says Rushton. "They learn to read maps, tie knots, and recognise animal tracks; they dig latrines and put up tents and cook over a fire - all the traditional scouting stuff. But today the focus is more on recycling and protecting the environment than on marching and wearing uniforms.
"When I went as a Swiss leader at 17 to the World Scouting Jamboree I was amazed to see all these old people in shorts running around telling the kids from other countries what to do," she remembers. "None of the leaders from the other 100 countries were as young as we were.
"Now, at 27, I ask myself sometimes how I could have taken on so much responsibility so young," Rushton says. "But I don't remember having any problems then; we just had fun together."
by Kim Hays
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