GLEN JEAN, W.Va. - Make room, guys. The girls are coming to the Boy Scouts of America's national jamboree.
Hundreds of female participants will be among the more than 40,000 Scouts and leaders attending the national gathering that occurs every four years. The jamboree runs July 15 to 24 at the Summit outdoor adventure site in southern West Virginia.
The girls are part of the Scouts' youth development program called Venturing. It started in 1998 and involves members of both sexes ages 14 to 20. Many of their activities involve physical challenges and travel, making it especially attractive to older teens.
This photo courtesy of the McGhee Family, members of Boy Scouts Venture Crew 1893 from Charleston, W.Va., are shown in a 2012 photo during a ziplining trip at Adventures on the Gorge in Fayetteville, W.Va. For the first time, Venture crew members will be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts’ National Jamboree, which takes place in mid-July in southern West Virginia. (AP photo)
In this undated photo provided by Tammy Welles, Boy Scouts Venturing crew member Jenny Welles prepares to rappel during a climbing weekend at Bear Paw Scout Camp in Mountain, Wis. For the first time, members of Venturing crews, including girls, will be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts national jamboree being held in mid-July in Glen Jean, W.Va. (AP photo)
While girls attended past Jamborees in limited numbers, organizers say this year is the first time they've widely allowed female Venturers. About 2,000 Venturers are signed up this year, and National Jamboree director Larry Pritchard estimates about half of them are females.
"Yes, it's a big deal," said John R. McGhee Jr., a Charleston attorney and board member of the Boy Scouts' local Buckskin Council. "It speaks well for the future of scouting. It brings a whole new segment of the population into the program."
Letting them participate was "just the right thing for us to do," Pritchard said. "This was just the next logical step for us to take, to give those members of our program an opportunity to enjoy what we have here as well, to drink the Kool-Aid and spread the word to the others who are in Venturing, to both young men and young women."
The jamboree approaches as Boy Scouts of America faces turmoil after its move to accept openly gay boys as Scouts. The BSA's National Council voted in May to allow gays after years of pressure to be more inclusive. However, the vote prompted a backlash from some conservatives, and at least a few churches around the country have said they will no longer host Boy Scout troops.
The Boy Scouts of America's youth membership declined from 3.3 million in 2002 to about 2.6 million last year.
Jenny Welles, 18, saw her brother head off to the 2010 jamboree while she was unable to go. This time she'll being attending with a group of Venturers from Appleton, Wis. She spent a week in West Virginia last summer during a scaled-down dress rehearsal for the jamboree.
"I just think it will be a good experience for everybody," she said. "It will give Venturing more publicity and we can probably get more participants."
According to the BSA, Venturers' membership has declined more than 10 percent since peaking at 260,000 in 2008.
Twins Virginia and Perry McGhee formed their own Venturing crew two years ago. Their father and grandfather were Eagle Scouts, and their brother was a Boy Scout.
They relished the program's recreational, community service and social opportunities.
"As you're getting into your teenage years, it's kind of important," Virginia McGhee said. "You have to build the communications skills between everybody and not just kids who are just like you."
The 10,600-acre Summit site, which will be the jamboree's new permanent home, is the perfect venue for Venturing's high-adventure activities. The site will also hold the 2019 World Scout Jamboree, an international gathering that has previously allowed female participants.
Perry McGhee said she'll participate in "whatever I can get my hands on," although the competitive swimmer plans to spent a lot of time around the Summit's four Olympic-sized pools, where the activities will include SCUBA diving, kayaking and other water-based challenges.
Welles and Virginia McGhee can't wait to go whitewater rafting on the nearby New River.
Along the way, they won't mind showing the boys a thing or two.
"If we can surpass them, that'd be great, to show them that we're just as tough as they are," Virginia McGhee said.
Rick Kagawa will have two girls among his group of eight Venturers from Orange County, Calif. Part of the jamboree experience involves trading patches, and that's where Kagawa believes the girls will have the advantage, based on his daughter's experience as a staff member in 2005.
"My daughter walked anywhere and a boy would open up his bag and go, 'I'll trade you because you're a girl with anything I've got.' She got everything she wanted when she was at jamboree," Kagawa said. "''We tell all our girls that you'll get any patch set you want."
Pritchard expects the focus to be more on the outdoor adventures than a battle of the sexes.
The young people "just want to be here and try it," Pritchard said. "The Venturers who were here last summer for our (dress rehearsal) weren't here to see who was better, the boys or girls, but just to experience what there was for us to offer. Even with that little taste we gave them, everybody went away with a wow. We want to do more of that."