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Adopt a Highway and Scouting: How to do it right and stay safe

adopt a highwayCongratulations on the newest addition to your Scouting family!

This new member is two miles long, four lanes wide and could use a little TLC.

Scout units that participate in their state’s Adopt-a-Highway program have found a public way to give back to the community. They agree to maintain a stretch of highway, usually for a minimum commitment of two years, and in exchange get service hours and public recognition in the form of their unit number on a prominent road sign.

That said, running an effective Adopt-a-Highway program in your troop or crew involves more than just picking up McDonald’s wrappers, hubcaps and empty cans of Dr Pepper.

It takes planning to make sure enough Scouts or Venturers participate and — most importantly — that they stay safe.

First let’s take a look at some Adopt-a-Highway safety tips, including recommended minimum ages. Then we’ll see how other Scouters made the most of their adopted stretch of road. Find it by following signs for the jump.

Adopt-a-Highway safety tips

Scouting guidelines

Mark Dama, the BSA’s team leader for insurance and risk management, recommends reviewing the Sweet 16 of BSA Safety, part of the Guide to Safe Scouting. These reminders from the Sweet 16 are among the points that directly apply (but go ahead and read the whole thing, too):

  • 1: Qualified Supervision: Before heading out to clean up your stretch of road, be sure you have a conscientious adult who understands and knowingly accepts responsibility for the well-being and safety of the children and youth in his or her care.
  • 4: Safe Area or Course: The supervisors should make sure the road area is free of hazards and select an appropriate time to be out there.
  • 6: Personal Safety Equipment: In this case, that would be reflective safety vests, work boots, long sleeves and pants, and plenty of sunscreen. You might also put up cones or safety triangles or have an adult stand “upstream” to flag down oncoming cars and tell them to slow down.
  • 9: Weather Check: Check the forecast before heading out and reschedule if things look bad.
  • 11: Communications: Consider equipping the adults with two-way radios, especially if you’ll be spread out over long distances during the work.
  • 13: First-Aid Resources: You’d bring one of these anyway, I’m sure, but here’s one more reminder to pack a first-aid kit.
  • 14: Applicable Laws: BSA safety policies generally parallel or go beyond legal mandates, but make sure you’re following all applicable regulations or statutes (see below for more on this).

Don’t forget about the BSA’s Service Project Planning Guidelines (PDF) that will ensure all your bases are covered.

Local/state guidelines

Check with your state’s department of transportation (or other appropriate agency) for specific safety guidelines. If you Google your state’s name and the phrase “Adopt a Highway,” you’ll likely find what you need. My home state of Texas, for example, offers these excellent safety tips.

What’s the appropriate participation age? That’s up to your individual state’s regulations. For example, TxDOT says: “The suggested ratio is at least one supervisor for every three children under age 15. At least one adult must be present for minors ages 15 to 18. Children under the age of seven (7) may not participate in the program.”

That seems to indicate that some Cub Scout-age kids could participate in Texas. But, as Richard Bourlon, BSA’s health and safety team lead says, I think you’d find a highway isn’t an appropriate place for Cub Scouts if you used the Service Project Plan PDF I shared above.

In California, Caltrans sets the minimum age at 16. In Michigan, crew members must be at least 12 years old. Same for West Virginia. In Oklahoma, it’s 11.

So again, I encourage you to check with your state, county and/or city before getting too deep into this process.

And if you’ll be using any tools, always check the BSA’s age guidelines for tool use.

Tips for doing it right

Decided adoption’s right for you? Here’s what your fellow Scouters suggested:

Heather C: We adopted a one-mile strip through Keep Polk Beautiful almost two years ago. It was fairly easy once we got the paperwork started. After our first cleanup (took the longest), we do it once a quarter. This helps our boys to achieve service hours needed along with presentation in our community. Our “Leave No Trace” Scout Instructor handles the scheduling and promoting. Since our local office of Keep Polk Beautiful is a good distance from us, we provide our own grab tools, safety vest, rubber gloves, and buckets/bags.

Duane M: Don’t adopt a very busy area if you have youth participation. Missouri has suburban and rural areas which are suitable for youth groups to adopt. Troop 202, and Pack 202, have adopted portions of Missouri Highway 17.

Mike K: Our troop adopted a heavily trafficked street in our township. The township board really liked the idea, and jumped on it. We do a clean-up day in the spring and in the fall. The township provides us with trash bags, rubber gloves and “grabbers.” To ensure participation from the Scouts, we simple remind them that service hours are necessary for rank, and that usually motivates them to come out. We actually get a lot of participation from the Scouts’ siblings and parents as well.

Angel B: Troop 162 in Hampton, Ga., has a 2-mile section of road in our county that runs in front of our chartered organization. We usually pick up trash three times a year. We are restricted to 13-year olds and older walking along the road. The younger boys pick up trash in front of our chartered org. church and the adjacent cemetery.

Daryl V: Waterford, Ohio, Troop 222 has a two-mile section of adopted highway we have done for 15 years. Great PR for Scouting, and Scouts have contests to see who can find the most unusual thing. (You wouldn’t believe some of the things we’ve found!)

Ray K: Troop 540 in Phillips, Wis., has done this for many years on a two-mile stretch of State Highway 13 starting on the north side of Phillips. We do three clean-ups per year: spring, summer and fall. We divide into four teams with at least one adult and a minimum of two Scouts per team. Two teams start on the southern end and work north. The other two teams are driven to the north end and proceed south. We meet in the middle, and then bring all of the trash back to the southern end of our section, where the county highway department picks up the bags for disposal. We have always had good turn-outs for this “Cheerful” community service project. We usually go to the local A&W for root beer when we finish the clean-up.

What do you think?

Does your unit run a successful Adopt-a-Highway program? Share what worked in the comments.


Photo from Queen of the Apostles Parish

7 Comments on Adopt a Highway and Scouting: How to do it right and stay safe

  1. We’ve had two miles for many years. We do it 2x/year. One way we make it fun is have a “most interesting find” contest. Usually this has just the level of “grossness” to fully engage adolescent boys in the fun of it. But last year, it was a $10 bill!

    • I always find free money interesting! :)

  2. Some dangerous items on the roadside boys should call over adults : ie water bottle and chemical bombs , drug or alcohol refuse such as needles and on the health side wear gloves for diapers dead animals etc best to call over an adult

    • Great reminder.

  3. My troop has a 2-mile stretch along a residential outlet in PA. Our operation requires a minimum of four adults: two per side, one in the front and back on each. We allow the Scouts to “pick their teams” but require one Senior Scout to act as Patrol Leader that day. Our municipality gives us grabbers, trash bags, road signs, and safety vests. We tell Scouts to bring their own gloves, but we have a unit supply of work gloves we bring each time.

    Everybody always has a great time, and surprisingly this is probably the most well-attended outing of the year, other than summer camp. As said above, once you have the logistics figured out the first time, it’s a fun, easy activity.

  4. Don Schmidt // March 12, 2014 at 1:32 pm // Reply

    Another item to leave for proper authorities is coolers with covers on and intact. Have an adult make the call to the proper authorities. May be leftovers from a meth cooking operation, especially on rural sections of highway.

  5. Jim Kangas // March 13, 2014 at 8:41 am // Reply

    Our troop has for many years cleaned a two mile stretch of county road in a rural residential area; we gather at the church in appropriate clothing for the weather, make sure everyone has work gloves, distribute “road worker” vests marked with our troop number, then head out in car pools. One half start at one end of the stretch, and the other half the opposite end, then they work toward a designated halfway point. Each team is three or four boys escorted by an adult (or two). If the boys run across anything dangerous, such as broken glass, road kill or unknown objects, an adult is called to check out, retrieve the item and bag it. Boys are told to stay off the gravel shoulders and walk along the edge of the grassy area; adults walk along the inside of the gravel shoulder as markers that the youth are present.

    In all the years we have cared for this road, we have never had any incidents, and the Scouts make a game of it to claim the most unusual item, the most golf balls, etc. After the road cleanup, we return to the church for ice cream treats.

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