Boys’ Brigade Scotland director John Sharp spoke to Kirsty Paterson about how – and why – the organisation is so proud to be celebrating 100 years of the Junior section this year.

A party at Stirling Castle marked 100 years of the Boys Brigade's Junior Section

If you know a member of the Boys’ Brigade – and as one of Scotland’s largest youth organisations, the chances are you will – you might have noticed them baking a giant cake, planting 100 bulbs or learning to play marbles.

Indeed, they may have been doing something very different – because to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the junior section of the Boys’ Brigade, the youngsters are on a mission.

Boys' Brigade Junior section enjoy a sleepover at the Science Centre in Glasgow

The Junior 100 Challenge won’t be completed by anyone overnight – there are 100 challenges, including the cake baking, ranging from learning sign language to going on a scavenger hunt to climbing at least 100m.

“The 100 challenges almost summarise what the Boys’ Brigade is about,” said John Sharp, director of the Boys’ Brigade in Scotland.

“There’s a lot of fun learning, there’s voluntary work, working in the community – lots of ways for young people to develop confidence, resilience and independence.”

Many of the challenges ask the young members to look back to 1917, when the Boys’ Brigade decided it was time to take in boys under the age of 13 and formed a junior section for ages 8-11.

It was a very different world in many ways: living through the dangers of the First World War, many of their older brothers and dads would have been serving abroad.

The young members of the Boys’ Reserves, as it was then known, would have played with marbles, wooden hoops and spinning tops.

Few of their homes would have had electricity, while only about half had gas.

Indoor toilets and water from a tap were still very new. Baths were tin ones in front of the fire. While much has changed since those days so has the Boys’ Brigade.

The 21st century organisation goes kayaking, plays dodge ball and even takes 400 boys on a sleepover in Glasgow’s Science Centre – they could have taken twice that many, such was the demand, said John.

“This is the fifth year we’ve done it,” he explained. “It’s a really fun experience and we hope it will inspire them to learn about science.”

John is just six months into his role as director and he has been inspired by the dedication and commitment he sees from the army of volunteers – 3500 in Scotland alone – many of whom have given decades of service.

So what keeps them giving their time, week after week, month after month, year after year?

“I think the volunteer leaders see the results. They see the impact of what they are doing on young lives.

“I hear quite a similar story from different leaders in different parts of the country; seeing the young people grow and develop and meeting them years later and them saying thank you.”

John, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, looks back on his own time in the Boys’ Brigade with gratitude.

“There was one particular leader who had a big impact on me and really encouraged my love of music,” he said.

“We had a Boys’ Brigade choir and she persuaded me to sing a solo in a competition. As a nine-year-old, that was a big thing.”

Other boys – and some girls in a few Girls’ Associations that are now springing up – will find different aptitudes to shine in, while taking part in many competitions the BB runs.

“The difference between us and, say a football club, is that the stress is on using these skills to help the young person grow and develop,” said John. “Learning the skill is only part of it.”

What they hope to boost is what John calls ‘soft skills’ – the confidence and resilience juniors will carry right into their adult lives.

“We see lots of research that says there is a massive soft skills gap,” he said.

“Employers are looking for teamwork, problem solving skills, adaptability, time management, organisational skills – that’s what we try to encourage.”

For the youngsters who joined a century ago, the chance to go camping in a group was a real novelty –these days it’s widely done.

John said: “We had a national camp on Millport recently. The boys had great fun, including building sandcastles.

“You might think that sounds a bit old-fashioned, but it was hotly contested!”

As the brigade looks to the future, it is focusing on three strands – growth, quality and voice.

After a membership dip in the 1990s, there was growth in the 2000s and while numbers are now fairly steady, it always wants more young people to join.

The third strand, voice, means listening to young people and allowing them to contribute; half the Scottish committee members are now young people.

Amid the changes are some constants – the partnership with the Church of Scotland remains firm.

So if the people who formed the juniors all those years ago could see what was going on today, how does John think they would react?

“I think they’d be really proud!” he said. “I’m proud of what we do – helping young people grow and fulfil their potential and giving them lifelong skills and experiences.”

The Junior 100 Challenge has been running throughout 2017 and will finish on December 31,2017.

You can find out how your local section is getting on by visiting the Twitter feed, #juniors100.

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