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Article updated: 6/16/2013 6:03 PM

Local Navigators USA chapter offers 'inclusive' scouting alternative

By Kimberly Pohl

Over the course of a decade, Elizabeth Vesto supported -- though somewhat reluctantly -- her sons' involvement in the Boy Scouts of America.

The Boy Scouts had, after all, helped instill in them a sense of responsibility, respect and an appreciation for the outdoors, and she was grateful.

But every activity, camping trip and merit badge only heightened the conflict she felt toward the century-old group for its long-standing policies barring members over their sexual orientation and religious beliefs.

"So many times we'd have to go home after and talk about the discrimination issue so (my sons) knew it wasn't OK," the Kildeer mother said.

Then came the Boy Scouts' July 2012 decision after a confidential, two-year review to reaffirm the organization's policy of excluding gay youths and troop leaders. The policy has been amended since to allow gay scouts, but not leaders.

Vesto's family resigned immediately after the 2012 decision.

"Our kids gained a lot from scouting, but we felt like there needed to be an inclusive alternative," she said. "We wanted an organization we fully believed in."

She did some research and came across Navigators USA, a New York City-based organization founded in 2003 that bills itself as committed to providing a quality and "intentionally inclusive" coed scouting experience.

The organization's mission and curriculum inspired Vesto to start a local chapter -- the lone Illinois group, so far -- three months later with co-leader Matt Briddell, a Wheeling resident who as a teen achieved Eagle Scout, the highest Boy Scout rank.

The pair quickly won the support and sponsorship of Palatine's Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist, where they're both members.

"It had been a long hope of mine there'd be inclusive scouting," the Rev. Hilary Krivchenia said. "I was excited about the opportunity of supporting a truly caring civic organization."

Though the group meets at the church, atheists, evangelicals and everyone in between is welcome.

Navigators abide by a "Moral Compass" in which they promise to do their best to create a world free of prejudice and ignorance, and to treat every race, creed, lifestyle and ability with dignity and respect. Members also should believe in strengthening their bodies and improving their minds to reach their full potential, as well as protecting the planet and preserving their freedom.

Palatine's group, now 28 members strong, was the national organization's 30th chapter and part of Navigators USA's rapid expansion in the past year from 16 to more than 45 chapters.

Executive Director Robin Bossert was among the leaders of Boy Scout Troop 103, which began in an East Harlem homeless shelter, to start Navigators USA after the Unitarian congregation sponsoring the troop severed ties, citing the Boy Scouts' enforcement of exclusionary policies.

"We're not setting out to be Boy Scouts 2.0," Bossert said. "It's evolving into something quite different. It's not us against them or one is better than the other. But they leave out entire groups, and we wanted to be open."

Bossert said last month's decision by the Boy Scouts to allow gay youth but continue its ban against gay leaders has led to even more interest, with more than 200 people inquiring about establishing new programs. He believes many people had been on the fence about whether to leave, hoping the Boy Scouts would altogether eliminate the policy. When it didn't, "the flood gates opened."

That trend is in contrast to the Boy Scouts, which has seen membership steadily decline from 4.8 million youths in 1973 to about 2.7 million today, according to its annual reports.

Matt Thornton, interim scout executive of the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts, said the national organization's most recent decision led to minimal reaction in the area. He declined to comment on Navigators USA, saying he was unfamiliar with the group, but emphasized that Boy Scouts has been "part of the nation's fabric" for more than 100 years.

"America needs scouting and our policies are based on what is in the best interest of our kids," Thornton said in a statement he attributed to the Boy Scouts of America. "We believe good people can disagree and still work together to accomplish great things for youth. Going forward, we will work to stay focused on that which unites us."

Tom Allison of Arlington Heights said he looked into Boy Scouts for his 7-year-old son T.J. but couldn't bring himself to sign up.

"The direction they're going isn't meeting our goals of inclusiveness and being open to all abilities and aspects of life," Allison said.

At Navigators USA, T.J., the other members and their families take part in a variety of outdoor and character-building activities, all the while incorporating the Navigator "traits" of being truthful, respectful, inclusive, generous, dependable, resourceful and cooperative.

The Palatine chapter, which meets a few times a month, has gone to the Deer Grove Forest Preserve to help clear invasive species, cleaned a cemetery on Veterans Day and attended an Earth Day celebration with the Sierra Club, to name just a few outings.

Vesto and the other leaders also benefit from ample parental involvement, with adults bringing to the table expertise in fields such as engineering and physics. They've built a catapult out of PVC piping, launched bottle rockets and taken apart electronics, making sure to recycle the components.

"I had never come across anything like this," said Paul Mallick, a former Boy Scout and father of two girls, ages 6 and 9, in Navigators. "It's a unique and very inviting atmosphere, and it's making (the members) more comfortable with themselves and each other. There's not that inherent exclusivity."

Vesto said that while Navigators USA provides curriculum and a handbook, each chapter is free to operate the way it wishes. Collaboration and idea sharing between chapters is critical. Bossert, the national executive director, said the organization encourages creativity and diversity, leading some chapters to wear tie-dye shirts and others no uniforms at all.

There's not even an age requirement. Palatine Navigators recently launched its Stargazers group, a name it took from a chapter in St. Louis, for children up to five years old. The co-leaders are two dads who have a toddler.

Alayna Vesto, who at 13 is among the older members, said she enjoys being a mentor to her younger peers.

"I just like that nobody is left out, no matter what," she said.

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