Friends across the pond: Florida Scouts become video pen pals with Scouts from England

Scouts from Surrey, England, show their Scout sign. (Photo courtesy of Neil Jones)

In 1940, Scouting magazine encouraged volunteers to connect with troops in other countries and exchange “cheerful, friendly letters — filled to the brim with chatty, bright good news.”

“Let there go out from America a great wish — a prayer that soon all may be well with the world,” Scouting wrote in its March 1940 issue.

Eighty years later, as the global pandemic rages on, the world could use some healing once again. And once again, Scouts are perfectly equipped to lead the way.

Two groups of Scouts — one in Tampa, Fla., and one in Surrey, England — are doing just that.

Instead of swapping letters that take weeks to travel the 4,400-mile span by boat, they’re exchanging videos that arrive within seconds.

The medium is different, but the message is the same: hope, peace and friendship can help us heal.

“We must remember that even in trying times, we are part of a global movement,” says Brandon Kathman, district executive of the Withlacoochee District, part of the Greater Tampa Bay Area Council. “Our brothers and sisters abroad are facing the same global crisis we are, and it has never been more critical that we know and learn from one another.”

Brandon Kathman in a still from the Tampa-area Scouts’ video (Photo courtesy of Brandon Kathman)

How the connection began

It was 10 years ago that Kathman first met Neil Jones, a U.K. Scout Association volunteer in the Sheerwater neighborhood of Surrey, England.

Jones and his sons, Peter and Rob, were on vacation in the United States and stayed with Kathman’s family in North Carolina.

“They are all Scouters, and we took them on a few outings with our troop,” Kathman says. “Peter actually gave a presentation on American Scouting to his troop when he returned to the U.K. We have all kept in touch since.”

Last year, as the pandemic forced all of us to spend more time indoors and away from others, Jones had an idea: Why not reconnect with Kathman and some American Scouts to learn how they’re coping with COVID-19?

The English and American leaders decided to produce and exchange videos between the two groups, believing that an understanding of how different Scout groups are responding to the global pandemic would help the Scouts learn and grow.

Kathman’s Withlacoochee District produced the first video, which detailed the ways Tampa-area Scouts kept going during 2020’s hardships. The video documented significant local events of the year, including a kayak cleanup of local waterways, a “#campathome” contest and the latest batch of newly minted Eagle Scouts. Everything was edited together with footage of units sending video greetings to their overseas friends.

Jones says the video was screened during the Surrey Scouts’ virtual camp, and it was a hit.

Soon after, the Surrey Scouts responded with a video of their own.

Neil Jones in a still from the Surrey Scouts’ video. (Photo courtesy of Neil Jones)

Words from across the pond

“Like you, we have had to adapt to very different circumstances this year,” Jones said in the Surrey video. “For much of the year, we haven’t even been able to meet face-to-face with our Beavers, Cubs and Scouts. Instead, we have been meeting via Zoom, and the only camps have been in their back gardens. But in Scouting, we always do our best.”

Jones explained that his Scouts had been camping from home and learning to cook together over Zoom.

In a reminder that “A Scout is Reverent” applies worldwide, Jones explained how his Scouts helped commemorate Armistice Day in November. This gave the American Scouts an opportunity to learn more about this holiday that marks the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Jones closed the video by lighting a small candle.

“During winter and as the COVID pandemic continues to take its toll, it can feel as though we are in particularly dark times, but we can always bring light to overcome the darkness,” he said. “Today, I light this candle as a symbol of hope for us all, that as we work together and encourage one another, we will always do our best to be true to our promise.”

Scouts from Tampa perform a COVID-safe beach cleanup project in a still from the Tampa Scouts’ video. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Kathman)

Tips for becoming international pen pals

Are your Scouts interested in starting an international friendship like the one described above?

Kathman shared a few tips for getting started

  • Remember that Youth Protection rules apply, even in online settings. Ensure that adult leaders are copied on all digital correspondence involving Scouts. If you plan to participate in live videoconferencing, adults should be present on both ends of the conversation.
  • Use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to frame the start of the conversation. “Remember we are part of a global Scouting movement, and we are facing a global crisis together,” Kathman says. “Our Scouts were especially interested to see how U.K. Scouting responded to the pandemic.”
  • Keep things positive. “While we wanted to focus on shared challenges, we also sought to bolster faith in our movement through shared innovation,” Kathman says.
  • Involve youth leadership in the process whenever possible. This is a chance for them to share and learn, too, not just adult volunteers.
  • Focus on your local Scouting culture in communicating with international units — not just Scouts BSA in general terms.
  • Having trouble finding a group to connect with? Many Scouting programs around the world have variations of our own resource, which can include email addresses for local leaders. This can be a great way to find international units to pair with.

Videos from the video pen pals

Let’s hear from you

Have you established a successful “pen pals” connection with Scouts from overseas? Share your stories in the comments.

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.