Nearly every child has been to summer camp, but few travel almost half way around the world to enjoy it in the Parkland.
“We have over 4,000 Scouts and Venturers attend S bar F each summer,” says Tony Fouts, director of camping services for the Boys Scouts of America (BSA) Greater St. Louis Area Council (GSLAC).
S bar F Scout Ranch is located off Highway 67 in Knob Lick, and parts of its 5,200 acres are in Madison and St. Francois Counties.
Fouts said many of the scouts come from the GSLAC, which covers 51 counties in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, several hundred more come from as far away as Arkansas, Indiana, and Nebraska. None had to travel 6,810 miles, however. That is the distance (according to Google Maps) from Beijing, China to Knob Lick.
July 22, 35 students from Beijing and Mongolia arrived at the scout ranch as part of the BSA’s International Ambassador Program. The program is open to students in China, between the ages of 12 and 17.
According to the BSA website, “The Ambassador program brings students from China to scout camps in the U.S.A. for a unique educational, recreational, and cultural adventure. BSA and the International Ambassador Program blend the best of Scouting with an exciting university experience focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) opportunities.”
“This is our third summer of hosting the International Ambassador Program at S bar F Scout Ranch,” Fouts said. “We are proud that our National Organization has repeatedly chosen ‘the Ranch’ to host it due to our first class facilities and programs.”
Joel Ferris is the International Ambassador Program Administrative Specialist. He says the BSA partners with schools across China that recruit the students.
“China is one of the largest countries that is not part of the World Scouting Movement,” Ferris said. “We are offering youth from China a chance to experience the best of scouting.”
The students arrived in the United States July 15. According to Ferris, they landed in Chicago and spent a few days touring the city along with attending some public speaking classes.
One of the Chinese students, “Ricardo,” 16, said he is an 11th grade student from Bejing, who speaks pretty good English.
“I loved Chicago,” he said. “The weather is good, but it changes a lot. We had a speech class. The lady told us how to communicate with each other and how we can express (ourselves).”
The students then came to Washington University in St. Louis. There they stay in the dorms, attend STEM class activities, tour campus, and spend evenings playing sports on the South 40 lawn.
Another of the Chinese students, “John,” 13, said at Washington University, they learned about energy.
“In the afternoon, we made a machine and used the energy to make heat and learned how to bake,” he said.
“It went very well,” Ferris said. “A chance to see an elite American university up close is a great opportunity.”
Nilson Zhu of Shanghai is the International Ambassador for the program. He said the students got to experience United States education and how it is different than China.
“This year, we started a partnership with Chaminade High School where they spent a day seeing the school and learning about the differences in an American classroom,” Ferris said.
“The purpose of the International Ambassador Program is to give students from China a unique educational, recreational and cultural adventure,” Christine Rasure, GSLAC Director of Marketing and Communications said.
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Ferris said, July 22, the students headed “to S-F Scout Ranch for a week of the best camp activities possible.”
“We started Monday outdoors, Zhu said. “The camp is organized very well. There are 35 students divided into four groups. Lots of enjoyable activities. For most of them, this is the first time they have tried many of these things. There is also a lot of interactions after dinner.”
“The first impression is a combination of curiosity, excitement, and anxiousness,” Ferris said. “Many have not been camping before and are curious about the living conditions, excited to meet scouts and do activities.”
Fouts said the activities the students participated in included: high ropes challenge courses; water skiing and tubing; sailing; horseback riding; shooting sports (rifle, shotgun, sporting arrows); kayaking; Huck’s Cove water park; rock climbing and rappelling; and socializing with scouts from the United States.
“I love tubing and the water,” Ricardo said. “It’s very exciting. I also loved shooting the rifle and the archery.”
“They like the aquatics the most, Huck’s Cove, climbing the inflatable iceberg, tubing, water skiing,” Zhu said. “They had a lot of fun. The kids love it here. It’s a character building program with lots of activities. They learn lots of scouting skills. Most important, they have a sense of citizenship, team building, and teamwork. Lots of parents want their kids to learn these things. If they want to teach their kids good behavior, scouting is a very good way.”
According to the BSA website, BSA International Ambassador Program delivers five key pillars of opportunity for participants: Develop character from a scout camp experience; Gain confidence from challenging outdoor activities; Cultivate leadership and teamwork skills; Peak interests in STEM curriculum; Make lifelong friendships in a new environment.
“For the most part, the Chinese students are not scouts, so the concept of scouting is new to them,” Fouts said. “They do not come to camp to earn merit badges or work on rank advancement. They come to get a taste of the many activities that scouts in the U.S. get to do every year. Perhaps most importantly, they seek the chance to interact with scouts from the U.S. so that they learn about each other’s culture. “
The interaction between the Chinese students and the American scouts also proves beneficial to the scouts, according to Ferris.
“Some American Scouts have mentioned that this is one of the best aspects of a scout camp they’ve ever seen,” Ferris said. “Meeting and interacting and seeing the campfire skits and trading patches with the Chinese Ambassadors really was a highlight for many of the American Scouts.”
In addition to the scouts and students, the camp staff benefit from the experience.
“They love the unique opportunity it gives them,” Fouts said. “Many of our staff have been working at camp for several summers, and the chance to work with these students gives them an experience not many camp staff members get to have.”
There are some challenges, however, not the least of which is the language barrier.
“It does present some challenges, but several of the students and leaders are fluent in English and assist our staff with explaining the activities,” Fouts said. Oftentimes, the staff and campers have fun with learning parts of the other’s language.”
The camp lasted just a week. The teenaged Chinese “ambassadors” returned home, Saturday.
“For the ambassadors, the way that camp brings out independence, teamwork, and perseverance within just a week is the most powerful response,” Ferris said.