Seven things I loved about VenturingFest 2018 and the Summit Bechtel Reserve

Crew 514 of Lawrenceville, Ga.

Want to feel good about the future of this country? Spend a week talking to a bunch of Venturers.

I did just that last week at VenturingFest 2018 at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia. The event combined three awesome occasions into a single great week:

  1. It was the year’s largest Venturing event — with 1,800 green-shirted young people from across the country gathered for a week of awesomeness.
  2. It was the official celebration of Venturing’s 20th birthday. The program for young people ages 14 (or 13 and finished with eighth grade) to 21 was founded in 1998.
  3. And it was a week of adrenaline-packed fun at the Summit Bechtel Reserve, the BSA’s newest national high-adventure base. Like the National Jamboree last year and the World Scout Jamboree next year, this event allowed SBR to shine.

You can read the full story about VenturingFest early next year in the pages of Boys’ Life and Scouting magazines. Today, I’m sharing a few nuggets.

I was impressed once again with the Venturing program. Additionally, I got to see more of SBR than ever before, and I’m convinced it lives up to its reputation as a world-class home for Scouting adventure.

Here are my seven favorite things from last week:

Lauren Gogal (in white shirt), 14, from Crew 91 of Gainesville, Va., didn’t give up until she reached the top of a difficult route at The Rocks.

1. Seeing Venturers take risks (but in a safe environment)

Franco Allegro isn’t the biggest fan of heights. So you wouldn’t expect to find the 14-year-old from Crew 91 of Gainesville, Va., zip-lining from tree to tree high above the forest floor.

But that’s just what he did. Again and again.

“I just wanted to push myself,” he tells me. “I saw the rest of my crew having fun with it. Once you learn the equipment is going to help you, it’s easier.”

Sure, that’s easy to say now that he’s on solid ground. But what was he feeling on that first zip-line platform?

“I was literally shaking,” he says. “I got through the first one and just hugged the tree. I got more confident, and then I started looking around a little more. By the third one, I just started looking around to see how beautiful it was.”

Franco says the harness and helmet — plus his on-the-ground training — gave him the confidence to get up there in the first place.

“It helps to understand that you’ll be safe,” he says. “Boy Scouts really goes all the way with safety. It gives you more confidence to go out and have fun.”

Larissa Johnson, a 16-year-old from Crew 514 of Lawrenceville, Ga., doesn’t like heights either. But she felt confident enough to conquer SBR’s high ropes course — walking from tree to tree across challenging obstacles.

“I’m so terrified of heights,” she says. “I was worried about it, but when you actually get up there, and you’re doing it, it’s not as bad. Brenna [Emery, the staff guide] was like, ‘you’ve just got to trust the system and know that it works. You’re not going to fall.’”

At The Ropes, Venturers travel from tree to tree across a series of challenging obstacles.

2. SBR’s emphasis on challenge by choice

Venturers at every venue I visited were getting out of their comfort zones left and right (and high and low).

SBR gives them a safe environment in which to push themselves — but only if they choose to.

This is known as “challenge by choice.” SBR staff will encourage you to try new things, to push your limits and widen your comfort zone. But if you’re ever uncomfortable or just don’t feel up for something, that’s fine.

“We try to encourage them, but when it comes down to it, it’s challenge by choice,” says Alex Whearty, 21, a mountain biking staffer from Walpole, Mass. “If you don’t want to do it, we won’t make you do it.”

The Kodiak Challenge graduation ceremony.

3. The scene as nearly 100 Venturers completed the Kodiak Challenge

Kodiak Challenge is a fun, hands-on leadership course designed to be offered during a Venturing trip.

That made VenturingFest a great opportunity to offer this course to a ton of Venturers. Nearly 100, by my unofficial count, completed the five-day course during VenturingFest. I watched their inspiring graduation ceremony on the final day.

The Venturers arranged themselves into a large circle at the flagpole area, known as Twelve Points Plaza. The adult Advisors surrounded them in a larger circle — a visual sign that adults are there to support, not lead.

Earlier in the week, I sat in on a Kodiak course with some Venturers from Texas. Their instructor was fantastic. His name was Spencer Siefke, a 21-year-old from Clinton, Tenn.

“Your team may not be strong enough without everyone working together,” he told the Venturers.

They learned it here and practiced it all week.

Larissa Johnson (left) learns the ropes from Brenna Emery (in yellow helmet). Brenna did an excellent job keeping the Venturers safe while boosting their confidence.

4. How much everyone raved about SBR’s staff

You’d expect the Venturers to rhapsodize about all the excellent activities available at the Summit Bechtel Reserve. And they did.

But they were equally enthusiastic about the SBR staff.

Claire Curran, 18, from Crew 135 of Warwick, N.Y., says “they’re so cool. They’re just willing to talk to you about your life.”

Mason Jones, 18, from Crew 62 of Spring, Texas, says the staffers don’t treat Venturers like customers in a queue.

“You really do get more support here,” he says. “The staff here, they work with you, they don’t work over you. It’s almost like having a really good friend for a short period of time because you can trust them.”

A VenturingFest dance party, complete with karaoke and glow sticks.

5. Witnessing the camaraderie of Venturers from across the country

I met four Venturers from Crew 300 of Wasilla, Alaska.

The crew flew seven hours from Anchorage to Atlanta, changed planes, and then flew another hour to Charleston, W.Va.

And while the weather at VenturingFest was a little warmer than back home (“As soon as we walked out of the airport, the mugginess just hit you in the face,” says Julia Colver, 18), the people were just as friendly.

You see, Wasilla has a population of around 10,000.

“You’ll go to the grocery store and see 10 people you know,” Mary Sewell, 17, says.

In just five days, VenturingFest re-created a similar small-town feel.

“The people are really nice,” says Maddie Barlow, 15. “We’ll walk around, and they’ll just say ‘hi’ to you.”

William Burns, a 20-year-old from Crew 514 of Lawrenceville, Ga., agrees.

“You get to meet Venturers from all over the country and see how their crews work,” he says, “And then you can stay in contact with them. With social media, it makes it so easy.”

Jamie Lester sculpture of Walter Scott stands outside the Scott Visitor Center.

6. Those bronze statues

Jamie Lester works on a clay bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jamie Lester is the sculptor responsible for all 21 bronze statues at the Summit Bechtel Reserve. The statues recognize individuals who provided support to SBR through financial gifts.

Lester, a graduate of West Virginia University, quit his job making pizza 21 years ago to pursue his passion for art.

He visited SBR to meet with Venturers and adult Advisors. As he talked, he worked on a clay bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He told me about his process, which starts with coming up with a concept that tells a story about the subject. He wants it to be powerful for somebody who knows the subject but also have meaning for someone who doesn’t.

After the drawing is approved, Lester works on the full-size piece. He starts by making an 8-foot clay sculpture. When that’s done and approved, he makes a set of rubber molds.

Next up is a process where he uses the mold to cast a hollow wax shell. Molten bronze is then poured into that shell. When it cools, the bronze pieces are welded together and the seams are sanded away.

All that sounds complicated, but for Lester, the most stressful step is the final one: the unveiling.

“One of the most nerve-wracking things is when that veil is on, and the donor is there getting ready to see the piece,” he says. “I can’t sleep for the week leading up to it.”

7. SBR’s awesome array of A-plus adventure activities

Water Reality is an obstacle course on the water. Get your group over The Twinkie, climb up and over the Teeter-Totter, summit the Iceberg, slide across the Dog Bone, and then walk or run across the Water Mat.

Ah yes, the activities. At SBR, all trails lead to world-class adventure venues.

While I wasn’t able to see everything, I did watch Venturers try mountain biking, BMX, skateboarding, rock climbing, the ropes course, paddleboarding, archery, the zip line and an aquatics obstacle course called Water Reality.

Water Reality is where I found Zaria Ascue, a 15-year-old from Crew 469 of Charleston, S.C.

“It’s been really fun, and you get to try all these great things in one area,” she says. “It’s something different every day.”

Kyle Amburgey, a 17-year-old from Crew 514 of Lawrenceville, Ga., calls SBR “definitely my favorite camp of all. I have so many memories here.”

“It’s good to get out of your comfort zone,” he says. “The Summit experience is the greatest experience. By far.”

Torrance Jenkins, a 14-year-old from Crew 6 of Gastonia, N.C., says SBR inspired her to keep going and maximize every moment.

“Even if you’re tired, you’re sore, don’t give up and don’t go back to the camp and do nothing,” she says. “You’ve got to do something.”

At SBR, and in Venturing, “something” can be pretty much anything you want.