Last weekend at Singing Woods Nature Preserve on the northern edge of Peoria, the fall colors of the forest were rivaled only by the colorful array of badges on 18-year-old Celeste Saul’s Scout uniform.
“This is my rank, my Life rank, and then I’ve got my Totin’ Chip so I can use knives and axes and everything, and then my (Order of the Arrow) patch, because I am now a member of the OA,” said Saul.
She was one of a handful of Scouts resting under a pavilion after completing a morning of work along one of the forest preserve's winding, hilly trails.
“We’re doing trail reconstruction and we built two benches, we put in some steps, we fixed a hand railing, and then we dug out a bunch of dirt from drainage ditches,” Saul said.
The trail project, organized and managed by Saul, is one of the final steps on her path to become the first female Eagle Scout in central Illinois’ W.D. Boyce Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
That council includes more than 19,000 youth throughout a 14-county swath of central Illinois.
Saul is leading the region’s female Eagle Scout pack, since it was only in 2019 when the Boy Scouts of America opened its flagship scouting program, now known as Scouts BSA, to allow for female youth members. Saul is one of six girls that make up Troop 1627 based in East Peoria.
W.D. Boyce Council CEO Lee Shaw said that in just under two years, his region’s council has added 91 female members to the Scouts BSA program and more than 200 girls to Cub Scouts.
“Which represents somewhere in the neighborhood of 7% of our membership,” said Shaw. “So there is indeed an appetite for females to get involved in the program here.”
Nationally more than 32,000 girls are now members of Scouts BSA.
The inclusion of female members was the latest in a line of policy changes for the Boy Scouts of America in recent years. In 2013, the organization began allowing openly gay members, followed by an end to the prohibition on gay troop leaders in 2015, and then allowing participation of scouts who self-identify as male in 2017.
Shaw said the addition of female members is part of an evolution of the Boy Scouts of America that he has witnessed during his 30 years with the organization.
“To last a century you really do have to evolve,” he said. “Ten and 20 years from now, we’ll look back at a legacy of females who had the opportunity to be involved in the scouting program and they’ll go on to do remarkable things and we’ll be able to look back and watch how that just unfolded.”
The rank of Eagle Scout has long carried with it a certain merit that was previously reserved for only the young men who achieved it. More than just a badge of personal pride, the Eagle Scout designation often lands on a scout’s resume and can impact their earliest career opportunities.
“I’ve talked to many business people throughout the country...and often times those that are familiar with scouting will say, ‘I would always look for an application or an applicant that had scouting experience and if they were an Eagle Scout then I would kinda put them at the top of the list.’
“I think that it’s going to be a wonderful thing for young women to stand toe-to-toe with anyone else,” Shaw said.
“It’s gonna be really good for the Eagle, to have that honor, and all the hard work, it’s going to pay off,” said Saul.
Her parents, Sally and Lance Saul of Dunlap, beamed while talking about their daughter’s achievement and the personal growth they have witnessed along the way.
“This last few months, it’s really neat to see her confidence grow and...her communication skills,” said Sally.
“Her leadership skills,” added Lance.
“Three years ago I would have never known I could be doing all this fun stuff,” said Celeste. “Just being able to have the opportunity to be outside and grow and learn different life experiences and life skills.
“I just went in wanting to do it, and then it turns out I’ll be the first girl.”
There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.