Monday 23 September 2019

Fiona Ness: 'Scouting gives a lot to children - now it must reassure parents'

Walking on Carrauntoohil. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Walking on Carrauntoohil. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

You can learn a lot about life from the top of Carrauntoohil. Or at least I did, 17 years go, when I brought a scout patrol to the top.

The children had been selected from applicants from all counties and all backgrounds to take part on an immersive, 10-day mountaineering course over Easter, and I, with ne'er a scouting qualification to my name, had been parachuted in by a scouting friend to bolster the cohort of volunteer staff. Scouting, I thought, was for losers.

Working with a total of 36 youths aged 14-16 years old, it was a 'Teens in the Wild' experience, long before David Coleman ever conceived of the idea.

The group had a curious dynamic. As we ploughed on through forbidding weather I copped that one girl, overweight and from an affluent Dublin suburb, had finally stopped straggling along at the rear, saying "I can't do this" and was instead chatting away to another scout. The boy, from north Dublin, had lost his dad and his mum worked night-shifts to keep himself and his little brother.

He was the archetypal loveable rogue, always in trouble; she spoke of the constant slagging she got at her expensive private school for girls. In the end, they conquered the mountain together, and a few more things besides.

"I have no friends in school," the girl said at the top. "But I don't care, because my real friends are in scouts. I can be myself here."

In that moment I saw the scouting movement for what it was: exciting; inclusive; empowering.

At a youthful 26, I had nothing much to offer to these children beyond teaching them how to navigate in clouds with a compass. But for his part, the little lad already knew the wisdom that summiting any mountain is only half the battle, and he proceeded to stick with the girl on the tricky descent. Each balancing the other.

I staffed the navigation course for years after that, with no contact from Scouting Ireland to rubber stamp my credentials as a volunteer. Parents, for their part, seemed happy to put their children on the train to Kerry with no knowledge of with whom they were going or what would go on once they got there. God bless our collective innocence.

The children reported back to their troops that the week in Kerry was an amazing, life-changing experience.

Nearly everyone I met through scouting at that time I believed was there because they experienced so many benefits from scouting in their own lives, and wanted to give something back.

When it came to having my own children, I signed them up on the waiting list for the local troop when they were two months old. Then, feeling that I should also be giving something back, I joined Scouting Ireland as an adult member - this time fully vetted and trained in child protection.

I now feel the full weight of the responsibility you assume when you volunteer with a youth organisation. I admire the selfless work of the adult volunteers around me, But when it comes to Scouting Ireland that is as far as my admiration goes.

This week, as a review of historic cases of alleged child abuse in Scouting Ireland reports evidence of 71 alleged abusers and 108 victims, I question why any one of us would continue our involvement in scouts.

And more - I am afraid for my children. As they bounce in from their meetings saying they have never loved anything as much as they love scouting, I have to decide if I trust the organisation's management to make child protection its number one issue, so I can at least believe our children have the best shot possible at being safe.

Irish Independent

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