Photo by Mia Barranco
By day, Todd Bridges is an IT professional at University of Mississippi Medical Center. But in his spare time, Todd serves as the Cubmaster for Pack 85 and is Assistant
Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 85. A Boy Scout himself, he’s been involved with Scouts for about 10 years.
As Scoutmaster one of his many duties is to help the boys earn merit badges. The basic concept of merit badges may be well-known to the public — embroidered patches awarded based on a mastery of a skill or subject. But many people are unaware of the complexity of the merit badge program and level of commitment required to earn them.
First, there are over 140 merit badges (this has grown from just 57 in 1911) available to earn. Many of the badges cover subjects and skills that one would expect from a group like the Boy Scouts such as camping, cooking, life- saving, first aid and swimming. But there are over 140 elective badges that cover diverse subjects from computer programming to wood working.
Todd says the large number of elective badges “allow the boys to make the program what they want it to be. It’s not just outdoorsy stuff. They can focus on subjects like chess, theater or computer programming. And there’s no set order. The boys can completely dictate the program.”
Earning a merit badge requires that a Scout work with a mentor, referred to as a merit badge counselor. This is an adult who is an expert or works in the subject area, someone who can teach the skill, supervise the process and sign off on the work completed. The merit badge program emphasizes the ability “to do” rather than just knowledge.
Not surprisingly the most popular badges to attain typically involve shooting sports – shotgun and rifle shooting and archery. These are young boys, after all.
But for any Scout who thinks he’s getting an archery badge just for firing off a few arrows, he will be very disappointed. The archery badge involves lots of instruction, from the different types of arrows, bows, fletching and how to hold a bow. And before receiving the badge, Scouts must build an arrow and bowstring from scratch and shoot a certain score on target. The emphasis, Todd says, is “To really learn the whole process and to become proficient.”
Other popular badges involve trade skills such as welding, painting and plumbing. It seems the boys will take any chance to do hands-on work with tools. There is also a professional skill day — medicine, law, engineering that gives Scouts an opportunity to work in those professions.
Earning a badge can be very time-consuming and highly involved. For instance, camping requires that a scout spend twenty nights camping. The personal fitness and personal finance require scouts to keep a journal and mark improvements over a ninety day period. And sometimes the biggest hurdle is finding a merit badge counselor, not only someone who has expertise in a given area but is willing to volunteer his or her time. Todd points out, “There is an insane amount of time commitment from adults and community volunteers that go into merit badges.”
The badges themselves are embroidered circle patches with either a silver or green outline (silver outlines denote a requirement for Eagle Scout honors) and a very simple icon to represent the skill mastered. For instance, paddles on the canoeing badge or Dutch oven on the cooking badge. Some of the artwork on the badges hasn’t been changed in decades. But as the merit badge programs grow more contemporary, adding topics that include computer science or programming, the patches have more modern icons.
Merit badges are awarded in a Court of Honor ceremony. Todd says the boys look forward to wearing them on their sash. Todd says, “We know it’s just patches, but the Scouts have traded time and effort for it and we like to reward them for it.”