Recently I was able to talk with the folks at CenterTrail.com, a website that provides simple template based hosting to Scout units. In interest of full disclosure Center Trail is a sponsor of InsaneScouter, but in no way was this interview paid for or influenced by their sponsorship of this site. What follows below is my interview with them. Everything in bold is my questions and comments.
1. What exactly is Center Trail?
Mark: Center Trail was devised and developed due to our impression that consistency needed to be brought to the Scouting Internet space. This coupled with our concerns for child safety. In looking at all the offerings online for creation of Scout unit websites, reviewing the differences between Scout Councils and Districts and various unit websites, it was apparent something needed to be done. The use of social media to run units containing minors was concerning.
2. Why did you decided to start Center Trail? How did you come up with the idea? How is it different from other Scout based template hosts out there such as ScoutLander.com? How secure is your service? Does it support advancement tracking? Do you have concerns about how some units are using platforms that are not really meant to be uses for sites such as facebook?
Michael: After developing a handful of pack websites over the years, it became apparent that the scouting world could benefit from a simple but powerful do-it-yourself pack website service. Because Center Trail's founders are scouting dads, the idea resonated with each of us, and we knew it was something we had to do. In terms of web security, all usernames and passwords are transmitted via secure socket layer (SSL), as are all of the administrative website pages and all pack website pages *except* the public home page. In other words, all sensitive data (login credentials and pack data) is encrypted over the wire. In addition, we've taken all the preferred measures to secure and protect our applications. Our systems do not support advancement tracking, but we consider advancement tracking to be a component of the larger world of unit management, which inevitably will be on our product roadmap.
3. I know as a developer I could build a sweet website for a unit but lets say a year later I left the unit could anyone remaining maintain it? On top of that it takes a lot of work to keep a site current. Thus the easier the site is to use and update the more of the leaders and possibly Scouts you can get involved. As a result I think template based hosting is a great option for units. What are your thoughts on this?
Jason: You hit the nail on the head, that's exactly why we built this solution.
4. Do you have any advice for Units in regards to their websites regardless if they host them with you?
Mark: Yes, even if you think your site is safe from child predators in most cases there are ways either personal information can be compromised or meeting times and places can be discovered. Part of what CenterTrail does is to help units create a public side that advertises their unit in a very positive light, gives the public enough information to spur interest and possibly attract new scouts/members. However it does not allow any details on meeting times or personal information other than a way to connect with an adult leader. Jason and Michael can speak more about security.
InsaneScouter: As I always say anything you put online regardless if its password protected assume someone you don't want to see will see it or take it and use it in ways you don't want it used. After all if large banks, and corporations are getting hacked what makes you think your Scout site is safe?
Michael: First and foremost, I recommend that a scouting unit's website conforms to the BSA's youth protection guidelines. Center Trail is fanatical about keeping the names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and photos of scouts and scouting volunteers inaccessible to unauthorized persons. The same is true of meeting locations, dates, and times. So please host your website someplace that offers youth protection. Second piece of advice: keep your site current to keep parents and scouts engaged. It can be a powerful communication tool, if it is kept groomed.
InsaneScouter: Good point Michael. For those of you who do not know BSA does have guidelines for unit websites.
Jason: to Mark's point, we've seen photos of scouts online on sites like Facebook where the photo contains GPS coordinates of where it was taken ....
InsaneScouter: Photos are a great tool in recruiting and I believe at least some photos should be available to the public. When I was involved with a unit I would get a few emails a year from parents who were moving or looking to change units, or looking to signup their sons for the first time and would mention finding us through the site and how the photos and information made us look like a good choose. It all about balance.
5. Are there any good ways for a unit to use their site to fund raise? For example asking for donations, running ads, and selling popcorn.
Mark: Future releases have all kinds of ideas as to raising funds. We will have an area where units can let their members and the outside world know what items of equipment they need so that proper equipment can be purchased and donated. The unit can also let the outside know about facilities needed or other unit goals for raising funds.
6. Tell me a little bit about yourself? When did you get into Scouting? How long have you been in Scouting? Any special memories? Any embarrassing moments you are willing to share?
Mark - I got into Scouting in 1969 or there about after moving back from England. I started with Cub Scout Pack 118 sponsored by Van Hise Elementary in Madison WI. A great interview would be with my Dad Roger Rowell who ended up being my Cub Master all thru Cub Scouts. He is a highly decorated Scout and leader with significant stories and who made the impact on me as to how to run a Scout unit.
I earned all Cub Scout ranks including Bobcat, Wolf, Bear and Webelos and I seem to remember Lions as well. A bit foggy on that. Earned Arrow of Light as well and then crossed over into Boy Scouts and joined BSA Troop 122 located in Covenant Church also there in Madison. Because I have 2 younger brothers my Dad stayed back at P118 as Cub Master for another 3-4 years and as such I spent most of my Boy Scout years in a fun but quite (from what I can remember) unorganized Boy Scout troop. The troop mainly stayed close to home and did smaller trips and outings that revolved around cooking and some hiking along with canoeing. Memories mainly include lots of uncomfort and close to what would be called suffering in cold wet locations (Wisconsin). However many memories that were amazing. I now look back and see it as probably the oven where I was forged and tempered with the attributes of relentless perseverance. Probably favorite memories were the Camporees and Klondike Derby's where the area units got together for friendly skills competitions. Klondikes included building a large Idiarod type sled with old downhill skis and loading it with equipment for various skills tests. Each patrol would travel from skills station to skills station doing ice rescue, various first aid, fire building and cooking challenges, pioneering and many problems that demanded use of multiple Scout learned skills. We camped in the snow and cold and then the last day we made Scout stew that was made from a random can of soup each scout brought and the camp staff added some meat to jazz it up.
I also remember exploring caves and spending the night there sleeping in tight spots in the rocks. I remember the thick total darkness of when all flashlights were out and it was time to sleep. The issue of staying organized came to light in a cave as the sun does not rise in the morning and there is no light to find your equipment.
There were countless Camporee's on rainy cold weekends where we mainly spent our days frying Bologna and trying to stay warm. We had some very funny guys in the Troop as senior leaders that kept us laughing and going when things were uncomfortable. It was here in Scouting that I learned to build a fire in the wet and worst conditions possible. This skill has helped me all the rest of my life in life challenging situations in the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness.
I eventually earned my Eagle Scout right before my 18th birthday as I took a couple years off around the time I got my drivers license. Still today we call the time period around your 16th birthday the "fumes". The gas fumes and the perfumes get many Scouts distracted and that is a big reason many leave Scouting with their Star or Life rank and don't come back. I still remember my Dad getting me back enthused to finish. He knew what reaching Eagle meant and I as a dumb kid did not. As such I did make it and am thankful every day that I dug deep and finished. I still remember my eagle project was cleaning and painting lines on a huge church parking lot there in Madison. The thickness of the paint, the clean-up and the hundreds of lines done. I also remember all the people that came out of the woodwork to help me complete the project. As I later learned the Eagle project is not about completing a complicated task but rather learning the planning, fund raising, execution and leadership needed to complete the project.
I stayed on as a Junior Assistant ScoutMaster I believe until I was 21 years old. After those 14 years in Scouting I took some time off to work in Chicago and Atlanta. The Scouting fire began to burn again with the birth of my daughter Samantha and then sons Trevor and Luc. I never knew that the thrill of getting back into Scouting would be so strong until the kids were born. With Samantha we got into girl scouting and soon found that the key to the scouting experience was the leader, his/her pasison and parental support. Without that you have nothing as all that Scouting is, is a rough frame work to create an experience for youth.
One of the greatest memories and most nervous time I have in Scouting was walking into a Cub Scout meeting with my son Trevor when he was 5. Scouting had been so dormant for so long that bringing back the knowledge was interesting. It also took very little to raise my hand with my wife to volunteer to lead our sons Tiger den and also to get involved as an Assistant Cub Master. I began to get more involved with the Pack meetings and the fire was ignited with so many ideas for the boys. My heart was in my throat later that year when the acting Cub Master asked me to take over for the following year. I was not very comfortable as a public speaker and really pretty rusty as a Scouter. However part of what I learned from Scouting was to dive in with both feet and figure things out on the fly. If you have passion, all will fall into place. This was 1997 a year after our son Trevor was diagnosed with a rare aggressive cancer and we had just finished his treatment. Life was so precious and real. Since that time I have been an active registered Scouter adding 15 more years to my 14 as a youth. Appears that in 2013 I will have 30 years as a registered Scouter.
Favorite memories from my Scouting as an adult are many. Building the Cub Scout Pack from about 15 boys when I took over to more than 120 at the height of expending energy into that. Keys I found to building a successful Pack were the following:
1. Making every boy feel very special when earning an award. We always turned the lights down, lite candles and made a big deal out of every single rank advancement. I saw many Packs just hand them out in the course of running their meeting. I found this to be very much a let down for the boys and their parents who think its so wonderful;
2. I made many things that might not be that fun into something spectacular. For example, there is a religious award called God and Me or God and Country. On the surface the award is probably not one that most boys would seek out to get. It is a lot of work and unless really into religion probably not one that boys would choose to earn. However I felt it was important to earn. So I said that all boys that earned it could hit me in the face with a pie. Pie violence for God! Every year I was hit in the face with up to 15 or more pies by the kids. Very successful.
3. Another thing I did which I still feel is one of the coolest ideas I have ever had in my life and it not only created a number of Eagle Scouts but kept me involved with their Scouting lives many years after they left the Pack was this. When each boy got their Arrow of Light and crossing over into a BSA Troop, I gave each one of them a postcard with postage on it addressed to me. It invited me as their old Cub master to their Eagle Scout ceremony. I asked them to use it as a book mark in their Boy Scout book and then pop it in the mail when they got their Eagle. I put plenty of postage on it to cover rates 4-7 years in the future. I have not been a Cub master for many years and I still get them in the mail inviting me to Eagle ceremonies. Just amazing! Really fun.
4. Other fun things I have done to build scout programs have really come from my life as a boy scout growing up. The Klondike Derby's and the skills competitions made a huge impact. At Troop 625 a number of years ago I would run skills competitions at the Troop meetings creating patrol competitions that could be done in an hour or so. Pioneering, first aid, fire building, etc. Again this kind of energy and creativity creates fun meetings which boys choose to do. Boring meetings lose Scouts.
5. As asst Scout Master at T625 probably the coolest thing I had them do was attend a Klondike Derby in Michigan. I explained at a Troop meeting what it was and found 7 boys and another leader that were game for the adventure. I found a troop up north that would lend us a sled. We created a compilation patrol and called ourselves Southern Ice as we were a Georgia patrol coming up to complete in winter skills in Michigan. We arrived late on a Friday afternoon and found the temperature to be 6 degrees. The high temp for the entire weekend turned out to be 8 and we slept in nylon tents. We dealt with many complications including all our food and liquids freezing in the coolers, etc, Was kind of humorous but at the same time called on scout perseverance and resilience. We learned the secret of farm animals in keeping warm. We stuffed our tents with hay about a foot thick and found that putting our sleeping bags down in the hay kept us warm even when the snow was blowing thru the tents and drifting across our sleeping bags. We ended up winning the competition - a bunch of southern boys capping off an amazing 1600 mile trip for along weekend. When we got home and unloaded the pick up truck of all the equipment, ice was falling out of the bed from all the frozen equipment we brought back. How strange when it was near 60 when we got home. Really was like we were on a different planet for a few days.
There are countless other amazing expeiecnes I have had as a Scout and as a Scouter as an adult. I do believe that it means much more to me as an adult.
7. How has your Scouting experiences helped you in life, work, and business?
Mark: As indicted above, Scouting taught me to be relentless, deal with uncomfortable situations, to persevere when things seem too difficult, be fearless with an eye to safety. It also has made me a pretty good public speaker and helped force me to step out of the rat race to spend quality time with my kids in the outdoors.
Michael: "Do your best" has rung through my head more than a few times, just this week. It's a simple concept that should be followed without exception in every aspect of life, and it starts during a cub scout's first week.
8. Wow Mark taking a Pack from 15 active Scouts to 120, that is amazing. Do you have any tips for Scout leaders struggling with their own units?
Mark: Yes. Keys have been mentioned above. The key to a successful experience for a scout is passion of the leader. Creativity, getting others involved and having a vision for what is to be created for the scouts. In practice probably the most important things are excellent communication so parents and kids feel included and know whats going on. Also making it fun. I have seen many programs that on the surface look good but then when you go to a meeting its BORING!! Kids don't come back if it feels like school and features a bunch of adults droning on. We played steal the bacon, all kinds of fun relay races, rocket launches, camping, bringing in fun guest speakers, talent shows, etc. Skies the limit and if the leaders do not put energy into it and go all in, nothing happens and kids quit. Going the extra mile in really doing things right and well. For example when we had our pinewood derby races we would run them much like the Indy 500. Before racing would sing the national anthem. Then we would find a little girl in the audience to say 'Gentlemen start your engines". Awards for best car designs in all age groups, best car done only by the scout (those were easy to pick out), etc. Lots of trophies for all. Door prises, food, double elimination, etc.
Make the scouts feel special when they earn an award. Pound on some common themes revolving around perseverance, being proud, shooting for eagle and having fun!! Get the parents involved, have a strong committee with lots invested personally and make sure the parents "get it". If they just think of scouting as another activity they drop little Johnny off to do and they don't get invested, pretty soon Johnny doesn't show any more, unless the meetings are just too great to miss.
9. Jason and Michael are the developers behind this amazing piece of technology. I was wondering why and how they got in to the tech field? Also if they have any tips out there for Scouts who may be thinking about going into a tech related career?
Jason: Michael gets all the credit for development, I got involved more recently to help expand the solution, broaden the marketing and in general get the message out.
Michael: From the time I was seven I had no doubt that I wanted to write code. I studied hard in college and emerged with degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics, both of which are my passions. I can't imagine a life *not* working in the tech field. My suggestion for Scouts who are thinking about a tech related field is to do things that develop Critical Thinking, ranging from board games and number/word puzzles all the way to learning tough math for kicks and how to make
a website. The internet is full of child-safe places to explore mathematics, science, and programming languages.
10. If you could change anything about Scouting today what would it be?
Mark: Offer a lot more support to new leaders. Basically require the District executives looking after the units to track down and meet with all new Pack and Troop leaders. Help them understand what it means to run a successful unit. It seems that unless a leader hunts down help, they get very little. In many cases a new leader either has never been a Scout or isn't sure how it works. They might be there as a leader because no one else would. This is a recipe for disaster and a failed unit if the district leaders don't actively seek all new leaders out and make sure they are made to feel like they have support, etc.
This may sound self serving but honestly probably the biggest complaint I have with Scouting right now is the lack of sharing the creativity of other units. There are thousands of leaders out there with amazing ideas and things they are doing to deliver a quality program to their unit. However no one else knows about what they are doing or how they are doing it. More technology which CenterTrail is working to share units calendars, documents, and ideas is key. I saw this off and on over the years as a leader and even in 2011. I was trying to find a Klondike Derby up north to take our Troop. I called the national BSA HQ to find out what units were doing Klondikes and when. They had no idea. It would be quite simple to standardize scout unit, district and council websites and via feeds combine calendars etc. Sharing of ideas and calendars would be amazing. Getting units to attend and participate with other units outside their district and councils is to me what its all about.
11. Mark's Pack had on back of there classb t-shirts "Timeless Values, Endless Fun", I think this is deceivingly simple quote that holds an amazing punch. I was hoping Mark could expand on what it means to him.
Mark: This is a take off of BSA's saying that I thought was pretty good but slightly missed the mark. To me in running a Scout unit I wanted to create snap shots in a child's mind that they will have the rest of their lives. Fun times when they were successful. Times when they failed. Times when they snuggled in front of a fire with Dad. Times when they suffered but endured. Etc. I always described it as trying to create Norman Rockwell images in the minds of the Scouts from what they did in Scouting. I feel if its done right, the Values part of it is simple as if lived and repeated, the Scout Laws, Motto's, Oaths etc take care of that part. The tricky part is the endless fun and I felt that saying was almost more of a reminder to the leaders about what ball they needed their eye on. Creating endless fun is the key to expanding Scouting to more and more kids. In a day when kids are less active and losing valuable time in front of electronics, Scouting can be that priceless place where they discover a tent, campfire, ghost story, award, smile, learn how to lose well, learn how to help a fellow kid, learn to save a life. If its not fun, they don't continue. Its a sneaky way to create high quality kids and instill all kinds of values and skills without them even knowing it!! I think Scouting is amazing!
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope i made that as pain free as possible. If you would like to read the bios on Mark, Jason and Michael or to get in contact with them go to http://www.centertrail.com/marketing/company