Scout life: American Heritage Girls and Troops of St. George offer faith-forward programs
As traditional scouting programs face declining membership, more parents are seeking alternative ways to get youth involved in community service or outdoor activities.
In the Diocese of Fort Worth, two organizations offer those opportunities, as well as character development and leadership skills within the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
The American Heritage Girls and Troops of St. George for boys are Christ-centered, parish-based initiatives that help youngsters grow spiritually and socially during their formative years.
Loving God, cherishing family, serving others
Karen Wilde loved the responsibility, leadership, and service opportunities her son found in the Boy Scouts and wanted her daughter, Lauren, to have the same experience.
She considered the Girl Scouts.
“But that didn’t work out,” explained the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (SEAS) parishioner, who wanted faith fully integrated into the program.
Her quest to find a group that coupled fun activities with spiritual development ended one Sunday after spotting an American Heritage Girls table set up in the church foyer. Founded by a network of Cincinnati, Ohio, parents in 1995, the national organization welcomes 5- to 18-year-old girls and builds them into women of integrity through service to God, family, community, and country.
Members earn badges, participate in service projects, and experience the outdoors with an emphasis on Christian values and family involvement. Catholic girls receive added guidance and support from the AHG National Catholic Committee and are encouraged to earn faith awards and patches.
The faith-based organization checked all the boxes for Wilde, who became an adult leader for Troop TX2012 at SEAS.
“It had all the things I was looking for, but with a Catholic focus,” the mom said. “Lauren has been a member ever since and that was five years ago.”
An incoming senior at Keller High School, Wilde’s daughter received the AHG’s Stars and Stripes Award for her efforts refurbishing a flagpole and surrounding landscape at the historic Mount Gilead Cemetery in Keller. The achievement is equivalent to earning the rank of Eagle Scout.
“It took a lot of time to sand the pole, paint it, and replace the worn-out ropes but I’m glad I stayed with it,” said 17-year-old Lauren, who spent 100 hours working on the project. “Being an American Heritage Girl showed me how to be a leader and become an independent person.”
Celebrating its 26th year, AHG now boasts more than 50,000 members in 15 different countries and all 50 states. Six parishes currently sponsor troops in the Diocese of Fort Worth: Good Shepherd, Immaculate Conception, Sacred Heart in Wichita Falls, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Maria Goretti, and St. Philip the Apostle.
“American Heritage Girls helped my daughters grow in faith and, at the same time, taught them different life skills and leadership,” said Anne Bremer, who started a troop at St. Mary Parish in Temple in 2010 before moving to the DFW area.
The Coppell resident later co-wrote the curriculum for the national organization’s Catholic faith awards and badges.
American Heritage Girls is interdenominational, and girls are encouraged to work toward awards that reflect their religious beliefs.
Serving on a five-member committee charged with upgrading the Catholic faith guidebooks, Bremer wrote materials geared towards junior high students.
“We wanted something a little more in-depth as far as apologetics and integrating the core points of the AHG creed with different virtues of the Catholic Church and saints who demonstrate these virtues,” Bremer explained.
Requirements for a faith award advance as a girl gets older.
“Some patriot level awards are really deep studies of encyclicals written by different popes,” she added.
Now the shepherd (spiritual leader) of Troop TX1027, Bremer said American Heritage Girls reinforces the values of loving God, cherishing family, and community service she wants to instill in her daughters, Hannah and Gianna.
“For me, American Heritage Girls is a way of integrating faith through life skills,” she pointed out. “It teaches them how to be the hands and feet of Christ on earth.”
Forming virtuous men, boys
Years from now, when Victor Hernandez recalls his favorite memories of fatherhood, he’ll reminisce about sitting around a glowing campfire with his four sons reciting the Rosary. The nighttime ritual is always part of a weekend spent with the Troops of St. George.
“It was impactful,” said the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner, describing the experience shared with other boys and their dads.
“We say the Rosary for veneration of Mother Mary, but we’re doing it in a very masculine environment. We’re praying in the dark and in the middle of the woods with a roaring fire. It’s amazing how memorable that is,” he said.
Hernandez is one of the founding members of Troop 5 — the largest group of men and boys in the burgeoning Troops of St. George organization. A Catholic apostolate that combines outdoor adventures with faith formation, the organization was started in 2013 to develop strong, virtuous fathers and sons.
Hernandez explained the “idea was to bring dads and their sons together for the primary purpose of growing in faith. That journey happens in the outdoors, [through] being self-sufficient and doing the things men and boys love to do.”
Hiking, archery, fishing, and learning survival skills occur between morning and evening prayer, a daily Rosary, and heartfelt discussions about the saints or living the faith.
The highlight of every campout is the Mass with a priest visiting the campsite, or the troop traveling to a nearby church for the Saturday vigil service.
“We stop everything we’re doing, get cleaned up as much as we can, and give emphasis to what is the most important thing — the Mass,” the spokesman said. “There’s something to be said for experiencing it in God’s creation versus a structure made by man. It’s just special.”
A frequent Mass celebrant is Monsignor E. James Hart, the diocesan Chancellor and Moderator of the Curia, who serves as national chaplain for the organization.
Other North Texas Catholics on the executive team include Dr. Jeremy Lustig, the national director; David Fischer, board member; and Brian Squibbs, national director of communications and recruitment.
The organization has grown from 11 troops a few years ago to just shy of 100 active troops today.
In addition to SEAS, the organization has chapters at St. Philip in Lewisville and St. Martin de Porres in Prosper.
“It’s not really about the numbers. If we change one soul, we’ve done our darnedest,” enthused Squibbs, who is an acolyte at SEAS.
Approved as an apostolate in 2018 by Bishop Michael Olson after a careful review of the curriculum and field manuals, the Troops of St. George welcomed its first Canadian troop recently.
Squibbs credits the bishop’s approval and the pandemic for surging interest in the organization.
“Being an outdoor activity helped, as did Bishop Olson sharing information about us with his brother bishops,” he explained.
When promoting the apostolate, the communications director stresses one point: It’s different from anything out there.
“We not only live the adventure of the outdoors in God’s creation, we’re doing it alongside our kids,” he said, noting it’s not a drop-off program. A dad, uncle, grandfather, or older sibling must accompany the Catholic youngster to the troops’ six or seven events a year.
“I tell mothers they think they are sending boys out for an adventure with the Troops of St. George, but they end up getting a better husband and father back,” Squibbs continued. “That’s what’s been absolutely crucial for me — my family and my spiritual growth in the Catholic faith.”
Fully and unapologetically Catholic, the organization’s mix of learning how to light a fire along with knowing how to be an altar server also benefits parishes.
“I always tell priests you’re going to get better families and better boys in the parish helping you,” the father of four pointed out.
“That’s what the Troops of St. George bring.”