THORNTON, NH – Valerie Ann Johnston heard it all before. Sometimes it was from other young people in Scouts BSA (formerly Boy Scouts of America), or it was from fellow students at Plymouth High School.
“‘Why would you join Boy Scouts? You’re not a boy,’” they would say.
Since the organization changed its name and began allowing females to participate in Scouting in February 2019, parts of the culture have yet to catch up to the idea of girls participating in what is still a male-dominated institution.
Johnston heard the criticisms, but was not fazed by them. Instead, through “hard work, time management, patience and perseverance,” she made history and became the first female Eagle Scout in New Hampshire.
Since it takes close to two years to complete the requirements, this year is the first to see young women achieve the Eagle Scout rank. Nationally, 934 girls made the grade, according to Jay Garee, Scout Executive for the Daniel Webster Council.
“We are the first class to come up,” Johnston said. “It’s really an honor and it’s just an amazing feeling. At first, I didn’t really believe it.”
She earned the rank on Feb. 8, nearly four months after a virtual board review in October. And on March 1, the Daniel Webster Council announced she was the first young woman to become an Eagle Scout in the Granite State.
“Our goal is to recruit as many boys and girls as we can to enjoy all of the benefits scouting has to offer to inspire young people to lead, as Valerie does, with good character, strong leadership ability and as productive citizens,” Garee said in an email Wednesday.
Being an Eagle Scout is to be in rare company as it is, since only about 6 percent of young people who participate in Scouting make it to the highest rank. It requires a minimum of 21 merit badges, taking on leadership positions in one’s troop, and organizing and completing a large community service project.
Johnston’s project was a food donation drive, during which she raised $1,000-worth of food for the New Hampshire Humane Society in Laconia. Her original plan was to set up physical drop-off locations, but as the COVID-19 pandemic began to roll through the state, Johnston pivoted to a virtual donation platform, where people could give money and she would organize shoppers to buy food with it, and a virtual registry that shipped items to her house.
They also filled a trailer with food donations at an event in August at the Pemigewasset Valley (Pemi) Fish and Game Club in Holderness.
Johnston was already older than the typical Scout to start the process of attaining Eagle status, but after the rule change in 2019, girls aged 16 and 17 were allowed to apply, she said. Johnston was nearly 17 when she joined, but the clock was also ticking since she needed to complete the requirements before she went off to start college.
The logistical challenges of completing the requirements within that narrow window were only compounded by the pandemic, Johnston said.
Johnston said she was influenced and supported by others in her family, such as her brother Shane, 21, who is also an Eagle Scout, her father Dean Johnston, who led a Cub Scout pack her brother was in, and later was Troop leader for Scout Troop 58 Campton/Thornton/Waterville Valley while both his kids were Scouts, and her mother, Capt. Sandra Johnston, who has served over 30 years in the U.S. Navy. When she was 6, Johnston tagged along and participated in all the same activities as the boys in the Cub Scout troop. But since girls were not allowed to officially join until 2018, she was not able to earn any of the merit badges.
“I had tried Girl Scouts in the past but it really wasn’t for me,” she said.
The Girl Scout troop she participated in focused on indoor activities and skills, she said, but she wanted to do more outdoor activities like hiking and camping.
At age 14, she joined Venturing, a program of Boy Scouts of America that allowed girls to participate. There, she was part of a shooting crew that would shoot .22 rifles, .22 pistols, 12-gauge and 20-gauge shotguns at the Pemi Fish and Game Club.
A few months after joining, she attended the National Youth Leadership Training (NYLT) program, a weeklong experience she said helped her develop key leadership skills and encouraged her to get out of her shell.
After seeing she was the youngest person in her cohort, and one of the few girls, Johnston said she realized she would need to be more talkative or else she would be overshadowed by the older males in the group. And once she earned a voice for herself, she made sure others had a voice, too.
That experience led her to staff the NYLT program for the next five years, this year as course coordinator. Her responsibilities include hand-picking assistant course coordinators, collectively selecting senior staff, and overseeing the staff training and development for over 40 young people and adult advisors during monthly trainings in preparation for the summer program.
Johnston is grateful for all the help and support she received from friends, family, Scouting volunteers who mentored her, and fellow Scouts.
Now, Johnston is a freshman at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, VT. She’s taking classes remotely.
“First, my goal is to finish college, hopefully in three and a half years,” Johnston said.
She is majoring in business administration with a minor in accounting.
After college, Johnston is contemplating joining the U.S. Military. She’s not yet decided on which branch she would join, but she said following her mother into the Navy is a possibility.