Timaru scout honoured
Bruce Mitchell was a late starter to the Scouting movement.
Living on the family farm in the Waitaki Valley, and then later in Geraldine, Mitchell was a member of Boy's Brigade, only joining Scouts as a Rover Scout aged about 18.
But that late start hasn't stopped the Timaru man from notching up 50 years' service to the movement and receiving an award to mark the milestone.
Mitchell became involved in Scouting as a Cub instructor in the 1960s through a chance encounter during his after- school job.
"I was delivering groceries after school and this lady said to me, did I know anybody who could do semaphore? And when I said I did, she asked if I'd come along and teach Cubs some semaphore."
So the Rover Scout and Timaru Boys High School student went along to the Cecil Rhodes Scout group in Athol Place, Timaru, beginning a lifetime's involvement in the movement.
Mitchell tends to stick with things. His working life involved just two employers; working for Goodyear - as a traveller, branch manager and internal auditor - and then in latter years, as development manager for the New Zealand Red Cross in Timaru.
"Goodyear was very supportive of Scouting. Being a US company they had the Scouting background. I went to several jamborees overseas while I was there, and they were always very happy for me to go."
Alongside his paid work, Mitchell gave hours of his spare time to Scouting, and to the Order of St John, as a volunteer ambulance officer, attending public events, and taking on administrative roles as well.
Why give up so much of his own time?
"My parents were always involved with everything in the community, and always supported everything that was going on. It was always just the done thing to help other people. They were very generous people, probably never had a large amount of money, but they were always quite happy to help."
The family farm was at Papakaio, up the road from the Otekaike Special School, and Mitchell remembers boys from the school turning up.
"They used to escape and come up to our farm because they knew Mum would feed them. We even had swagmen; they used to come around and were allowed to sleep in the barn, but they always got a good feed. I guess in a way that's what taught me to be kind to other people."
Mitchell spent five years with Cubs, before moving on to the older age group, Scouts.
"I found that if you stayed too long, you became stale."
Other roles followed; district Scout leader, assistant area Scout leader, and now, zone leader for the South Canterbury zone - from the Waitaki River to the Rangitata, and inland to Aoraki-Mt Cook - overseeing Scouting in that area.
"It's being like a headmaster - you sort of oversee, help clear up any problems, just make sure that the thing runs smoothly. Sometimes it's just for people to have somebody to talk to. Very occasionally I have to wave the big stick - the rules are there to keep everybody safe, and make sure everything runs smoothly."
And while his role sees him dealing a lot with leaders of Scouting groups, he's very clear about the priority.
"The while thing revolves around the young people. No matter what position you hold in Scouting, the kids are the most important, and then the next most important are the leaders who are there every week.
"I'm under no illusions. If I left today, Scouting would continue, but if you take that leader away, it leaves a big hole, and the group may eventually have to close down."
Mitchell says we're very lucky in South Canterbury to have a number of long-serving leaders who have done 20, 30 and 40 years. But he's also seeing new parents come forward and offer their services. They might come along for a couple of nights and enjoy it, or go to a camp, and then decide to take on a leadership role and take up the training that the movement provides.
"Most parents have got the skills anyway. It just needs a wee bit of a touch up here and there to bring them into the Scouting way of thinking. They get a warrant, which says they're prepared to abide by the rules, the Scout law and promise . . . The whole thing about Scouting is the law and promise."
His role can be challenging.
"Sometimes you get a bit down, with adults complaining about something - but the kids are actually having the time of their life. Kids still like to do things that kids have always liked doing, getting dirty, having fun.
"I have no problem talking to kids . . . or talking to anybody. I feel privileged to be able to do that, to listen to them is very important, to treat them as an equal. There's the odd time you have to mention things to them, but it can be done in the right way, without shouting and screaming.
"Kids today, they're no different. If you talk to them and - the most important thing - you listen to them, they will teach you as much as you are teaching them. They don't like to be talked down to, and if you don't know something you tell them, 'How about we learn this together?' And they think wow, this old grey-haired man coming along doesn't know everything, and after all those years in Scouting, he's hopeless at tying knots!"
Mitchell never married or had children. Instead, Scouting has become his family, with connections all over the world. His signet ring, embossed with the trefoil, provides a means of identifying with others involved in the movement.
"It's a family thing, a family of Scouting, there's no doubt about it."
Scouting has taken him around the world, to the United States for a three-month stint with a Scout exchange programme working at a Scouting camp of 700 children, to jamborees in Canada, Australia and Fiji, and around New Zealand.
There have been changes over the years; introducing the younger group Keas, and bringing girls into the Scouting movement.
"The kids now totally accept it. Some of the older leaders, it took them some time. But the girls we have in now, they do everything the boys do. There's no such thing as a girl Scout, they are just Scouts. A lot of the time they will challenge the boys and actually raise the standard. The boys think, if the girls can do it, we can do it better."
Mitchell has also seen the number of Scouts and Scout groups decline. Today, there are about 400 Scouts in South Canterbury.
"Once upon a time in South Canterbury, we had five districts and each district would have had that number. There are so many other things for young people to do now. It's amazing though, how a lot of the parents who have been in Scouts or Guides or whatever, are now encouraging their youngsters to come along. And this is where we are getting some of our leaders from: People who used to be Scouts, have got the skills, and want to give something back.
"The groups that are really flourishing are the groups with really good programmes that keep the kids interested. It's life skills; all the things they learn, half the time they don't realise they are learning it, and that makes it all worthwhile. You get people coming up to you years later, saying half the things I do today, I learned at Scouts."
Mitchell believes Scouting has a bright future.
"It went down badly in the 1990s, but has started creeping back up again, and numbers have increased quite dramatically.
"I believe it will stay about this level, I also believe it will always be there, as long as there's a need for young people to learn life skills, and we have adults prepared to be there.
"It's still held in high regard."
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