Friendships cross the water

While it's not unusual for boys and girls in Scouting to make friends for life, they usually don't make them on opposite sides of an ocean.

But that's what's going on between Wichita-area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and their counterparts in Bristol, England.

For about a year, the American and British Scouts have been exchanging transatlantic letters, cards and e-mails. Packages with T-shirts, uniform patches, maps and pictures have flown both ways across the ocean.

"There's really not much difference between these kids," said Scout leader Gary Lee, of Valley Center Troop 736. "They have so much in common, and they don't really realize it until they start communicating."

The exchanges began after Lee, an Airbus engineer, worked on an assignment in Britain for about six months in 2007-08.

His son, Carson, 12, had been a Scout in Kansas and joined the British Scouts while he was there with his family. He visited several other troops to talk about his life in America.

When Carson came home, he kept in touch and shared his British contacts with his fellow American Scouts.

It's been an exercise in enlightenment on both sides of the pond.

Several of the Kansas Scouts said they had to explain the concept of Thanksgiving, which the British don't have reason to celebrate.

The Kansans said they were equally puzzled by Guy Fawkes Night, when Britons light bonfires, burn effigies and set off fireworks to celebrate thwarting an attempt to blow up their Parliament 400 years ago.

The exchanges have expanded to include 30 Kansas Scouts — 17 boys and five girls from Valley Center and eight boys from Towanda.

And a dad: Gary Lee said he keeps in touch with his Bristol counterpart, 63rd Scout Group Leader Ben Hopper.

"I've got my own pen pal," he said. "I'm going to send a package off to him... after Christmas so it won't get tangled up in the mail."

Jonah Scott, 10, of Valley Center, said he treasures the items his British pal, Matthew Galliford, sent him. They include a tote bag with a map, a wallet with British coins and pictures of the historic steamship Great Britain in Bristol Harbor.

"I like the stuff from England, it's cool," Jonah said. "I'm still learning stuff from there that I didn't know about."

While the photos show clear skies, Jonah said Matthew warned him, "Don't be fooled by the pictures, because it's usually all the time raining."

Carson said that while Scouting is similar in Britain, he noticed some key differences.

American Scout troops mostly meet at big churches and schools, and he said it was "like a shock" when he first saw the building where his British troop met.

"The building I went to was a lot smaller," he recalled. "There was a really bad road to it and part of it was falling down."

But he said the meeting hall was nice inside and he had a lot of fun Scouting in Britain.

He said Scouts there were less focused on skill building and played a lot more games.

Cole Klinkhammer, 12, of Valley Center, said having a friend across the ocean is helping him understand how people live in another country.

"I haven't been to any other country but Mexico," he said.

His pal in England, Barnaby Fryer, will come to the United States during the holidays, but will be in New York — too far to meet in person.

But Cole said his parents are planning a family trip to Germany and added, "I'm going to try to talk my parents into taking me up to the U.K."

In Bristol, Cub Scout Adam Freeman, 9, said he corresponds with Kansas Cub Scout Kilian Foust, 8.

Adam said he hopes to move to America when he's older.

"I've been to the States and went to Disneyworld in Florida with my family this year," Adam said. "I did talk about visiting Kilian, but my dad said it was way too far. We looked on Google Maps and it would have been 1,033 miles."

In the meantime, the boys are enjoying their mail exchanges.

"I've sent quite a few badges including an 'I love Cubs' and camping badge," Adam said. "I've got a folder full of things from Kilian. He's sent me a few badges and some of his drawings, which are very good. One was of Batman. I'm going to send him some drawings."

In Britain, boys and girls are not separated in Scouting as they are in America.

Abby Sheahan, 10, of Valley Center, corresponds with Scout Sally Mantell in Bristol.

Abby said she's not too sure how she would feel about being in a coed Scout troop.

"It would be a lot different to be in with the boys," she said. "I like being a Girl Scout just now."

Coed Scouting would be "OK for the meetings," added her mother, Teresa Sheahan. "I'm not too sure about the camping."

Eight-year-old British Cub Scout Emily Galliford, Matthew's sister, said she's been corresponding regularly with U.S. Girl Scout Macie Shavers, who lived in Kansas when the exchange began but has since moved to Arizona.

"I send her e-mails and I sent her a Christmas card with boats on it," Emily said. "We ask each other things like 'Who's your best friend?' and 'What's your favorite color?' When my dad painted my bedroom I told her about it.

"It feels like she's close to me even though she's so far away."

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