BLACKSBURG — Mothers like Kristie Cooper have for decades supported their sons in Boy Scouts of America, but until recently none of them could introduce their daughter as an Eagle Scout.
That began to change on Feb. 1, 2019, when the century-old youth organization allowed female youth to join its troops across the country and in Southwest Virginia. And on Tuesday, Kristie celebrated both a son and a daughter becoming Eagles and spoke at a ceremony honoring them both.
Jacquelyn “Jack” Cooper, 15, of Blacksburg was among the first non-male scouts to join Troop 158 in Blacksburg, and the first in this region to earn the organization’s highest rank. Scouts can take up to four years to earn the Eagle designation, but Jack did it in 22 months.
“What that required was extreme tenacity,” said Kristie, treasurer of Troop 158. Jack “set the goal and worked every single day on scouting requirements.”
On Tuesday, leaders and friends of Troop 158 gathered at St. Michael Lutheran Church for a “Court of Honor” to celebrate Jack, as well as Kristie’s other Eagle Scout, Fitzhugh “Fitz” Cooper, 17, for attaining the rank. And it was a victory for the organization, too.
“It’s certainly a barrier that’s been broken through to let full families participate in scouting,” said George Clay, chief executive officer for the Blue Ridge Mountains Council of BSA. “It’s a real milestone.”
Jack prefers to be labeled as the first female Eagle Scout in the Blue Ridge Mountains Council.
Jack uses they/them pronouns, and came out as non-binary about a year ago.
“After I joined, everyone had to adjust to it a little bit,” Jack said. “Some people are a little more welcoming than others, but most of them are pretty nice about it.”
No matter what descriptors people use for Jack, “I’m kind of a trailblazer. I worked for this position,” they said.
And it was a lot of work. Eagle Scouts must earn at least 21 out of 121 merit badges available, attain several ranks, serve in leadership roles, garner recommendation letters and complete a project that benefits the wider community.
Jack’s project was building an outdoor kitchen for the Blacksburg United Methodist Preschool, and Fitz built raised beds for a garden at St. Michael that produces food for needy schoolchildren.
“Obviously, I’m proud of both of them,” Kristie said. “But that seems too small a statement for what Fitz and Jack have learned, achieved and overcome in these last few years.
“It’s lovely to celebrate the things that went well, the successes, the endpoints,” she said. “But I am more proud of how they responded when things didn’t go well — when plans didn’t work out, when the weather was challenging, when design flaws were identified, when supplies were not available, when they made mistakes and learned from them. The level of sustained effort required to earn Eagle is significant, but their resilience in the face of adversity is more impressive.”
Jack and Fitz are unusual in another way. They are likely the first male and non-male siblings in the Blue Ridge Mountains Council to become Eagles at the same time, Clay said. The council oversees scout troops in 21 counties and seven cities across Southwest, Central and Southside Virginia.
Today, the council has about 250 female scouts out of a total membership of 1,800, Clay said. Seven females, including Jack have attained Eagle rank so far, with more expected soon.
In fact, Jack and Fitz finished their requirements on the same day, Feb. 8. The novel coronavirus pandemic delayed their ceremony until this month. It was perhaps fitting they went together, as Jack credits Fitz with sparking their interest in scouting.
“Ever since he has been doing scouting, I was always kind of a part of it,” Jack said. “I was, you know, the sibling that went around with him all the time. I came to meetings. I went on trips.”
After joining the troop, Jack became a bit of an inspiration for Fitz to finish up his own Eagle requirements.
“It’s always been kind of like a race because in December, he was like, kind of chillin’,” Jack said. “And he was like, is Jack about to ... get Eagle? So he started pushing because he wanted to beat me.”
He did — by 20 minutes. Kristie said Fitz went before the board that certifies Eagle Scout just ahead of Jack.
“It was because he was older,” Kristie said.
Jack plans to stay involved in scouting for the foreseeable future and would even encourage their own children to join scouting.
“It’s like a whole ‘nother set of family,” Jack said. “I’ve got people that I hang out with every week and, you know, go camping, and I know I can rely on them for anything I need.”
It’s also a family legacy for Fitz and Jack. Their dad, Al is an Eagle Scout, as well as their uncle and their maternal grandfather. Al is a scoutmaster in Troop 158, and works with the female scouts.
Jack is considering engineering as a career and hopes to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kristie said. Fitz hopes to attend Virginia Tech and study business.