Michaela Witgen’s initial reaction to the news that girls could join the BSA had nothing to do with merit badges.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Holy cow! I can get my Eagle!'” she says. “Both of my brothers are Eagle Scouts, and I want to be one, too.”
But her second thought? Yeah, that was about merit badges. That was all about merit badges.
The 11-year-old First Class Scout from Troop 366 of Saginaw, Mich., wants to earn a merit badge in all 50 states. It’s quite a lofty goal for an 11-year-old — but hey, so is becoming an Eagle Scout.
“I would have to say we were surprised by it but probably shouldn’t have been,” says Michaela’s mom, Sarah Witgen. “She has always set big goals for herself. And she loves Scouting, so this really does fit for her.”
But still, why say yes to a goal that could be both time-consuming and costly?
“How could we say no?” Sarah says. “She wants to not only earn her Eagle but meet Scouts and Scouters across the nation in doing it.”
How far along is Michaela?
Michaela has seven states checked off so far: Michigan (her home state), Indiana, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maryland, Delaware and Nevada.
So far, the Kayaking merit badge, earned in Indiana, has been her favorite.
“I love to kayak,” she says. “I enjoyed practicing tipping my kayak and swimming to shore. I wish I had saved it for Hawaii, though, where it’s warm!”
With 43 states left — including those at our country’s geographic extremes, like Hawaii — Michaela has quite a way to go.
But remember, she’s 11. That means she needs to average “just” seven a year to reach her goal.
Oh, and lest anyone think Michaela is just in Scouting for the merit badges, let me tell you that her favorite thing about Scouting has nothing to do with those little circles of fabric. It’s the simple act of cooking with her patrol.
“I really had never cooked before — inside or outdoors,” she says. “I have now made several meals and try new things.”
She’s learning plenty outside of merit badges, as well. When Michaela started Scouting, she wasn’t able to pass the swim test at Webelos camp. She couldn’t swim.
Rather than letting herself get discouraged, she decided to take swim lessons. The very next year, she passed that test and went swimming with her fellow Scouts. Things have gotten even better since.
“I earned my Swimming merit badge at camp this year,” Michaela says. “Now I am joining a swim team.”
Guidance, logistics and more
So that’s the what and why. Now let’s get into the how.
How does Michaela plan to pull this off, and how will her (incredibly supportive) parents help?
“Michaela’s dad and I see our role as helping her achieve the goal with guidance, logistics and obviously financial support,” Sarah says.
Scouts BSA is youth-led, and Michaela’s parents let their daughter take the lead. Michaela selects which merit badges she wants to earn and where she’d like to earn them. She looks for councils, camps or companies that might be offering merit badge classes in a given state.
If she doesn’t find anything, Sarah will post a request online (Micheala isn’t on social media) to see what might be out there.
“The Scouting community has really opened their hearts to her with information and feedback,” Sarah says.
Forming a plan
Once Michaela identifies a solid option, she works with Mom and Dad to plan transportation (drive or fly?), lodging (motel or camp?) and expenses. To maximize her budget, Michaela tries to combine multiple states whenever possible.
“She has a budget and time constraints she has to work within,” Sarah says. “The quest would become very expensive and impossible without doing that.”
Next, the family decides who will join Michaela on the trip. Some will be treated as family vacations. For others where Mom and Dad can’t go, one of Michaela’s siblings — all in their 20s — will join.
“We are blessed that she has two Eagle Scout brothers and their wives and her sister that are also willing to help with the travel side when the opportunity fits,” Sarah says.
‘A comment in jest’
So where did Michaela first get this grand idea?
It came from Edward Campbell of Albion, Ind., the 2015-2016 National Sea Scout Boatswain.
Eddie is a friend of the Witgen family and was telling them about his goal to visit all 50 states during his yearlong term as the top youth in Sea Scouts. He then mentioned that it would be cool for someone to try to earn a merit badge in every state.
“It was a comment in jest more than anything,” Sarah remembers. “But after he made the comment, [Michaela] said she was interested in doing it.”
Keeping it in perspective
Sarah knows that when “Michaela does something, it is always 110%.”
But even if Michaela fails to reach 100% of the states, Sarah knows the journey will have been worth it.
“Whether that happens or not, we know that she has the Eagle spirit and has had an opportunity she would have never experienced outside of the BSA,” Sarah says.
Those are especially poignant words from the mom of two sons who are Eagle Scouts.
“I am so very grateful to the BSA for opening up this opportunity for her,” Sarah says. “From the time she was very young, she knew that as a family we live by the Scout Oath and Law whether people are looking or not.
“To hear her say that very Oath and Law the first time, I can’t quite describe the emotion that evoked.”
How to follow Michaela’s quest
Join Michaela’s journey by following her website, updated each time she checks off a new state.