Madison Knefley is crouched down in the entrance of a small closet, surrounded by books of all different shapes, sizes, and colors.
She and a few other scouts are neatly stacking them onto a bookshelf — picture books at the bottom where little hands can reach, and chapter books on top.
Knefley is putting the finishing touches on her Eagle Project, one of the requirements to earn the Eagle Scout rank. She started a book drive and set up a community library at a public housing complex in Lake Highlands.
“We came here for the troop Christmas party a little more than a year ago, and I heard that they were in need of more books and like, organization for books,” she said. “And that kind of like stuck with me because I like reading a lot and I thought it was a great idea that I could be able to share that with other kids.”
Knefley finished her project last week, but not without overcoming some pandemic-era challenges.
In October, she had to quarantine at home for two weeks because of a possible COVID exposure at school, setting back the timeline to finish her Eagle Scout requirements.
The pandemic also made Knefley rethink her Eagle Project. That’s why she planned a contact-free book drive.
“I posted on Facebook and Nextdoor and sent out an email to the troop that I was in need of books for my Eagle project,” she said. “So I had that open for a week where people would come drop books off and I would pick up from people, too.”
Ultimately the virtual book drive was a success. Knefley collected more than 400 books — so many she couldn’t even fit them all on the shelves.
Luckily, the pandemic didn’t throw Knefley off course. She’s still planning to receive her Eagle Scout rank in February with the rest of the inaugural class of girls.
But it has changed scouting.
“When things first sort of got serious in, you know, late winter-early spring, we went pretty quickly to just virtual meetings,” Lane Duncan said. He’s the scoutmaster of Knefley’s troop, 890.
“That was tough especially since, you know, the camping and the activities together really are what the Scouts are excited about. This is why they’re doing it.”
He says it was especially tough for the girls working toward their Eagle Scout rank. Group outings were cancelled or put on hold for months, so the girls couldn’t work on their merit badges or get together to help each other.
“I think that actually in some ways it was harder,” Duncan said. “Because they, you know, they still met, they still could talk about the stuff that they wanted to do and plan for the stuff they wanted to do, but they couldn’t actually do it.”
As COVID-19 case numbers increased, the families in Troop 890 created health and safety guidelines to protect the girls. Duncan says they had to rethink everything from carpooling, to how the girls would sleep socially distanced at campouts.
Recruiting has also changed drastically, at a time when interest in scouting has already dwindled. Last month, the Washington Post reported that youth membership in the Scouts has declined more than 26% in the past decade.
Under normal circumstances, there would be more outreach in schools.
Brandi Mantz is the marketing and communications director for the Boy Scouts of America’s Circle 10 Council. It oversees many of the troops in North Texas.
“We traditionally go into a school to make a presentation for the kids, and then invite them and their parents to an informational meeting,” Mantz said. “And of course if a school isn’t open, we can’t get into it, and then if the school is open, they’re not letting in visitors. And so that has hampered us greatly this year.”
Mantz says the council has still been able to host some recruiting events and informational meetings, but parents are just more hesitant to start their kids in new activities right now.
With vaccine distribution underway across the country, the leadership hopes things will slowly get back to normal.
In the meantime, Knefley is focused on getting her last few merit badges before officially receiving her Eagle Scout rank and pin at the ceremony in February.
“I don’t really know what [the ceremony is] going to look like, but it would be great that I could get to be one of the first female Eagle Scouts,” Knefley said.
In February 2019, girls were welcomed into the Irving-based Boy Scouts of America for the first time. That meant some of the teenage girls only had a few years to earn the Eagle Scout rank before their 18th birthday.
Knefley is only 13 and has plenty of time to finish her requirements. But she said she’s thrilled to be included in the inaugural class and to be among the first female Eagle Scouts in the nation.