Friday, October 23, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Help science by participating in Project FeederWatch

The feeding of songbirds is incredibly popular in Niagara County. A majority of rural homes have one or more bird feeders. This writer maintains two sunflower stations, a nyjer feeder, and a suet basket. It’s birdwatchers like us who allow every hardware and feed store on this end of the county to sell literally tons of seed each season.

Bird feeding makes for a nice pastime in our long winters -- many of the visitors, like cardinals and blue jays, add a lot of color to what can sometimes be a depressing winter landscape.  Most people don’t know that it can also be a tool for science. By monitoring what species of birds and how many of each visit feeders, ornithologists can track any number of factors, such as irruptions of birds, the spread of disease, and population declines.

While the scientists can’t watch the bird activity from everyone’s kitchen window, you can watch from yours and share your observations with them. This is done through the FeederWatch program, which is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

Feederwatch began in Canada in 1976 and 10 years later its scope was expanded to all of North America. What started as a simple endeavor with 500 participants has grown into a mammoth project that sees 20,000 citizen scientists sharing their observations every year. The Feederwatch staff of six takes in all the data from those observations and use it to analyze trends and, in turn, drive their peers in the bird sciences and conservation to conduct studies and implement environmental policy.

It’s a critical program that does have great merit. The Feederwatch team likes to use the painted bunting as an example. Feederwatch data from Florida showed that the winter population of the bunting declined steadily starting in the late-1980s, at an alarming rate of 4 percent per year. Those findings led the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to begin a systematic monitoring program of bunting populations so they could learn how to protect them and save them from becoming endangered.

It’s quite easy to lend them a hand in tracking birds. You register with Feederwatch at their website which, despite your volunteerism, requires an $18 participation fee which is necessary to keep the program alive, after all, it’s a non-profit (for that, you will also receive the annual report and the regular Cornell Lab newsletter). From there, you create your own profile that identifies your observation site and its location. That site must be one that attracts birds from something that you have provided, be it bird feeders, bird baths, or plantings. Over the course of two consecutive days of each week (most birders choose the weekend), you record what species of birds visited your yard and how many of a specific species were present at one time. This is done mid-November to early-April, typically the period when most northerners keep their feeders filled.

Beyond just entering data, the Feederwatch community has a lot to offer participants. There are blogs, photo contests, profiled observers, an email newsletter, a Facebook page and more, all of which allow you to share your observations in greater detail and learn from and appreciate the findings of others.

Birding is one of the most popular hobbies in the US – almost 47 million people observed, photographed or fed birds last year. You were probably one of them. If you are looking to add to that experience and battle the winter doldrums, join Feederwatch -- it’s a nice, easy way to give to and help out the scientific community and help our feathered friends in the process.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where birds eat over 400 pounds of sunflower seeds from his feeders every year. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 24 October 2015 East Niagara Post

Friday, October 16, 2015

Employers powerless to contain health costs

A little more than half of employers offer health insurance to their employees. That means a little more than half of business owners are ripping their hair out this month – the start of the open enrollment period -- as they come to grips with another round of rate hikes: The average plan is projected to see an increase of 7 percent. That is extreme but not unexpected. Premiums have always risen at a rate that’s a multiple of inflation, making the benefit a constant source of frustration.

In recent years we’ve done everything possible to buck the trend, from education and the institution of a high deductible plan to launching a wellness program and holding health-related contests. But there’s only so much that we as the employer can do to help people manage their health and, in turn, manage our costs (and theirs). Employers have their hands tied when it comes to healthcare.

Consider the plight of Flambeau. The Wisconsin manufacturer of tool cases and tackle boxes launched a wellness program and two requirements for participation were health risk assessment and biometric testing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission caught wind and filed a lawsuit against Flambeau citing safe harbor provisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Think about that. The company is trying to mitigate its risks and those of the plan participants by requiring that they receive annual check-ups so the participants are abreast of their current health and any markers present. But, the EEOC wants nothing of it and would rather that people who make bad health decisions continue to go down a path that might one day really put them under the ADA’s auspices by making them oblivious to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer that testing could warn them of.

It’s that mindset that’s also made HIPAA a monster. In its purest form, privacy of medical records is a good thing, but why can’t details be shared with the employers who are spending thousands of dollars on an individual’s insurance? They are investing in that person’s health and it would be good if the investor and that employee could work together to ensure the best for both parties.

I guarantee some readers just stopped and yelled, “you want insurers to share personal information with corporations and you expect them to do good with it?!” Exactly, that is what I’m saying. As I’ve said before, almost all private sector employers (99.7 percent) are small businesses. They aren’t the “evil” big corporations. They’re farms, lawn care companies, pizza joints, dental offices and factories like mine. They’re owned and run by real people, your neighbors, folks who actually give a hoot about the people they work with.

And, maybe that’s where I erred. My company pays the entire deductible for our coworkers, one of just a few in WNY that do that good deed. Likely because of that, my coworkers haven’t changed their behaviors in the marketplace (which is counterintuitive to high deductible plans); as with a traditional plan, they don’t have skin in the game. The proof is in the pudding: My coworkers and their families visited ERs or urgent care facilities 80 times this past year. Of those, 80 percent were ER trips and only 3 were actual emergencies, meaning we blew thousands on costly visits to ERs when cheaper UC or doctors could have been chosen.  

While I can’t be told who specifically went to the ER, I can know their reasons, most of which run the gamut of the mundane. Could I know, I would educate the employee. Similarly, 37 people at the plant don’t have a primary physician (which might explain ER visits). Again, I can’t be told who, so I can’t help them find one.

If HIPAA and the ADA weren’t so restricting, I would be able to work with my coworkers on these and many other items which would ensure better health and lower costs for the company, the workers (they pay 30 percent of the annual bill) and my clients. But, I can’t be the good guy and offer assistance to those who need it. The law won’t let me.

And everyone wonders why healthcare is so costly in America.              

From the 19 October 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The mountain ash – a tree that benefits your landscaping and local wildlife

The mountain ash is a small tree, reaching 25 feet in height on the most impressive specimens. What it lacks in stature it makes up for in terms of its beauty and its importance to local wildlife.

The fruits on a mountain ash tree are an intense red and found in clusters.
As its name implies, the mountain ash (which is not an ash but rather kin of hawthorns and apples)
frequents mountains. Abundant in cooler climes and stony, yet rich soils of Ontario, Quebec and Maine, we find that New York is at the southern edge of its range. Nonetheless, it can be found in good numbers across the Adirondacks and at some of the higher elevations of Allegany County.

As for Niagara County, it naturally occurs, and only in small numbers, in and immediately around the Niagara Gorge and the escarpment, which have some mountainous traits. You are more likely to encounter it in backyards and in the woodlots near them (the latter is where birds contribute to their planting through their droppings). It is an extremely popular ornamental, as many people, including this author, plant them to accent the appearance of their lawn.

They are sold at many local nurseries and are also available on the cheap every spring through the Niagara County Soil and Water District’s annual sapling sale. They have proven to be popular because of their small size and the showy fruits that last from September until March – or when songbirds consume them. The fruits on the American version are an intense red and they are found in large clusters. The Eurasian version – also known as the Rowan tree – has orange fruits.

Those fruits aren’t poisonous, but that doesn’t mean you should make it a point to eat them. They aren’t especially flavorful. They are heavy in tannin, which gives black tea its flavor. Thus, the pulpy berries tend to be too bitter for consumption. Some folks counter that by making jellies and marmalades from the fruits while some adventurous souls make wine out of them.

While people won’t eat the berries, animals will – and they love them. Grosbeaks, robins, waxwings and other berry-eating birds will browse on them all winter long. Deer will nibble at low-hanging berry clusters while turkeys and grouse will eat any that have fallen. In many a hard winter, birds are blessed to have access to this high-energy food.

For that alone, you should consider mountain ash as an addition to your lawn. I am a big fan of growing trees and shrubs that are natural to the area and contribute to the health of local wildlife. This lovely tree certainly fits the bill.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he has 4 mountain ashes – and hundreds of their berries – in his backyard…like a natural bird feeder. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 15 October 2015 East Niagara Post

Friday, October 9, 2015

Health insurance should know no borders

Cancer is never convenient. But imagine, if you will, fighting the disease while living in Allegany County. For comprehensive oncology services a patient from Wellsville and the person driving him or her would have to drive almost two hours one-way to Wilmot Cancer Institute in Rochester or Roswell Park in Buffalo. It’s known that over 600 Allegany County cancer patients make that trip to Wilmot multiple times every year and the numbers are likely similar for drives to Roswell.

To address this glaring need and give Southern Tier residents access to cancer care closer to home, Noyes Memorial Hospital of Dansville is working in partnership with Wilmot and Jones Memorial of Wellsville to create a regional cancer center. Construction of the $10.4 million project will begin later this month with the 6,800 square foot center giving residents of Allegany, Livingston and Steuben counties the best in care and the latest in technology.

It shouldn’t be this way. The hospitals and the public shouldn’t be on the hook for spending such money to build this center (the endeavor has secured $4.1 million from three donors alone), nor should have Allegany County area residents been subjected to long, uncomfortable rides to get cancer treatments over the past few decades. That’s because full oncology services have been available at Patterson Cancer Center in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, which is only 40 minutes away from Wellsville.

But availability and accessibility are entirely different animals when it comes to healthcare.

Due to laws that inhibit and/or outright prevent the sale and use of health insurance across state borders, Patterson has always been considered “out of network” for most Allegany County residents. So, they couldn’t make the short, convenient trip south into Pennsylvania and, instead, were forced to make long, agonizing trips north.

This is not unique to New York. Consider the state of California, which has a very long border. There are numerous horror stories of residents of mountain communities who have to take long, dangerous, and meandering trips into the heart of the state to get the care they need, when commutes to Reno and other out-of-state cities would be quicker and safer.

The topic of interstate insurance is nothing new – it was a major Republican talking point during the development of the Affordable Care Act. The GOP cited the cost savings that would be had were insurers able to work across state borders and the insured were able to buy national or regional plans. Simple things like eliminating repetitive costs (like insurers having to staff their own corporate bureaucracy for each individual state) would save billions. That, in conjunction with the savings to the consumer gleaned from increased competition (and the race to the bottom, if you will), would cause health insurance premiums to drop dramatically, easily by double-digit percentage points compared to current values.

While a compelling case was made, it never made it into the ACA. Despite the alleged drive to make everything “affordable”, interstate insurance was glossed over by the Democrats and the Obama Administration.

That’s too bad, because not only do the limits of state borders create costly insurance policies, but they also create heartache and pain for those personally affected by the limitations imposed upon them. 

To right those wrongs, we have a Constitutional obligation to allow a multi-state insurance market (its interstate trade, and human beings are pretty darn portable across state borders) and we also have a moral obligation for it – we cannot claim to have a fair and just healthcare system if we purposely rob the sick of convenient access to care. Someone who has cancer already has a decreased quality of life, why should insurance laws make it even worse for them?

From the 12 October 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, October 8, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Wild grapes – a vineyard in your own backyard

With summer having come and gone, many assume Mother Nature’s bounty has done the same. The blackcaps, mulberries and wild cherries that we enjoyed over the summer months are a thing of the past.

But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find some berries now. The wild version of one of the most well-known and most-beloved berries – the grape – is now ripe for the picking on the Niagara Frontier.

Identifying the wild grape

Although they are smaller than their store-bought cousins, wild grapes 
have an intense flavor. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
There are two dozen species of wild grapes in North America, many of which are difficult to tell from one another save for some nuances in leaf shape and the flavor of the fruit. For the sake of simplicity in this column, we will address them collectively as the wild grape.

All wild grape species have similar traits that allow for easy determination of whether it’s a grape or a Virginia creeper berry that you might be picking. You definitely do not want to confuse grapes with creeper berries, because the latter are poisonous. Creepers contain oxalic acid and will irritate the stomach and kidneys, making for some serious pain and temporary shutdown of those organs (Native Americans had used the berries as a cure for diarrhea). There have actually been a few deaths from over-consumption of Virginia creeper berries.

This five-leafed plant is a Virginia Creeper. Don't confuse its berries with 
wild grapes. 
The Virginia creeper is a vine that you will see climbing up larger trees, fences, and houses. Its berry is round and purplish, becoming ripe during September and October. The easiest way to identify a Virginia creeper is by its leaves: They have longish leaflets typically in groups of five.

The wild grapes are also vine plants and tend to grow on trees and shrubs. Their leaves are not in clusters like the creepers. Instead they have single leaves along their vines and these leaves are best compared to a maple leaf in appearance.  

Pick grapes now

Wild grapes ripen and are available for picking on the Niagara Frontier in September and October. They are much smaller than the grapes you would buy in a store and they are round in shape (while many store bought varieties are more egg-shaped). They will be dark red to a deep purple that is almost black in color.

If you’ve never tasted a wild grape, brace yourself. The flavor is intense and deeply sweet, so much so that it borders on sour. It’s quite unlike the more-subdued flavors of the green and purple cultivated varieties that have European roots. It’s closer to the grape flavors you might experience when you drink red wine. Some varieties of wild grapes are tastier than others, so dabble in a few of them to find the one you like.

Beyond just plucking and eating, wild grapes can be made into an excellent jelly (some folks suggest using slightly under-ripe berries) and many people swear by wild grape pies. You can also make a grape juice out of them and there are countless recipes for juices available on the internet, depending on how much work you want to put into brewing it (some recipes even suggest letting it sit in a cool, dark place for 10 weeks before drinking).

You can drink and eat more than the berries

Grape leaves. It's what's for dinner.
The wild grape is a fairly versatile plant when it comes to edibles. In the spring, you can tap the vine and drink the watery sap which has an acidic kick to it. In the later portion of the spring, you can nibble on the curly, light-green shoots that come off the vine while they are still tender. Although the shoots don’t look very inviting, they are actually tasty – they taste just like grapes.

You can also eat the leaves when they are young and tender (from May till the Fourth of July). My wife is of Lebanese descent and her family loves stuffed grape leaves, a food they brought from the Old Country. Her grandmother prepares them for most every family gathering. It’s a surprisingly good treat that you should give a try … the slightly acidic leaves give it a bite, a special flavor of its own.

Here’s the recipe for Grandma Kitty’s Lebanese grape leaves:


  • ~50 Grape Leaves, rinsed
  • 1 lb uncooked ground beef
  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • Cumin- 1 tsp
  • Allspice- 1 tsp
  • Mint (fresh is best) – 1 tsp, or about 10 leaves chopped if fresh 
  • Lemon juice- ¼ cu plus more for adding to water 
  • Tomato paste- ½ can, mixed with water 
  • Salt & Pepper to taste, or about ¾ tsp each 
  • ~3 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • 1 Potato (for lining saucepan)

Combine all ingredients except for potato. Do not cook beef or rice. Place just under 1 Tablespoon (more or less depending on size of leaf) of mixture towards one end of a leaf and roll tightly, tucking in the ends so that the mixture cannot fall out. Repeat until all of the leaves are used. Place sliced potatoes at the bottom of a large saucepan then layer the rolled grape leaves on top, stacking them in rows. Add water until it just reaches top layer of rolled leaves, and add a little lemon juice, salt and garlic cloves.

Cover and bring to a rapid boil, then cook for 45 minutes on low heat. Enjoy with hummus, plain yogurt or by themselves!

A deadly plant for our forests 

While the wild grape might be welcome to many, I am always on the warpath against them. It is a deadly plant as it will climb its way up and over young trees and its primary vine and numerous sub-vines will create a dome of leaves that will overtake the tree’s leaves in the quest for sunlight. Many a tree has withered away and died because of this.

Grape vines will spread like wildfire and take over nearby trees. It is not uncommon for some grape plants to live for more than a half century and the vine’s stalk to become so thick that a grown man’s hand cannot wrap around it. If as a kid, or even as an adult for that matter, you pretended you were Tarzan and swung on a vine in the forest, that vine you used was a grape.

If you value the trees in your yard, hedge, or woodlot, do them a favor and clip grape vines and tear them down whenever you can. The vines will start to grow back the following growing season unless you blast the vine with Round-Up immediately upon cutting it (so that the killing chemical agent travels into the plant’s circulatory system).

But, it’s a crapshoot. If you’d rather enjoy the flavor of wild grapes and stuffed grape leaves, let them grow to your heart’s content and take over a couple of trees that you don’t mind losing. It’s a plant that despite its drawbacks is yet another of the many bounties that Mother Nature has graced us with on the Niagara Frontier.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he kills grape vines despite his wife’s affinity for stuffed grape leaves. It hasn’t led to a night alone on the couch … yet. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 08 October 2015 East Niagara Post

Monday, October 5, 2015

Employers: Reach out to tomorrow’s workers

There is a growing crisis in the job market. Well-paying full-time jobs with good benefits are going unfilled, with owners and managers of blue-collar employers (factories, farms, trucking firms, the building trades) having a difficult time finding skilled workers or even apprentices interested in that line of work.

It’s an outcome of a couple decades of misplaced priorities in society and education. Adults, whether in the home or in the classroom, had purposely driven kids away from the trades, thinking that such careers are demeaning and low-paying, on the path to extinction, and that college is the unquestioned key to success.

None of those beliefs are true nor have they ever been. Now, the adults who once believed them are waking up to that, especially since recent college grads find themselves crushed by debt and unable to find a good job due to an overabundance of college degrees, alleged over-qualification, and a sour economy.

Teachers, counselors, policy makers and parents now find themselves having to do a 180, changing the culture that their predecessors had put into play for far too long. They are seeing the value in all work and all trades and doing what they can to promote them among today’s youths. But, after decades of society going in the other direction, it’s a tough sell and a slow one.

That’s where employers can help out. Those same bosses who routinely complain about the deficient workforce need to do something other than whine. They need to do as they do in their workplaces – get their hands dirty, get involved. They need to reach out to the schools and put themselves out there. Guidance from real world people can go a long ways in getting students interested in skilled work and settled on a career that will keep them comfortable for life.

It’s an easy and effective pursuit, one that we’ve practiced for some time at the plant and I strongly encourage other employers to follow suit. There are three simple ways that you can do this: speak to classes, host tours, and let kids shadow.

Speaking to a classroom is the easiest investment of your time. You have a captive audience that you can speak to for a half-hour to an hour and those students tend to be appreciative and interested as it’s a break from the routine of that same room. While it’s the easiest option, it’s the least effective, as other than a slideshow or brochure, the kids really can’t see what you do. 

Experiential learning is the best way to garner interest and that’s why tours are a far better option. You can give the same spiel that you would in the classroom, but the kids can also see people working, machines functioning, and goods being produced. That awesomeness of what you do everyday can be an attention-grabber. It doesn’t matter if you manufacture kayaks, milk cows, or build warehouses – kids will eat it up. I’ve had fifth-graders, middle schoolers, high school seniors and college seniors go through the factory, all of them with wide eyes and keen interest.

Shadowing takes tours to another level and to make it happen it generally requires a full day and your willingness to share a lot of your time and knowledge -- and that of your coworkers – with students. This is new territory for us, as we have begun a monthly field experience program with Niagara Catholic through which four different students each month get the chance to choose from various career paths (machining, maintenance, trucking, business) and get to feel it out as a watchful eye and learner, observing what our folks do while hearing of the finer details of why they do it.      

While most employers won’t directly benefit from such activities -- the chances of you recruiting someone for your company is slim (and it should not be your goal) – those kids with whom you speak will. We have a culture in education and employment that we need to transform, and it takes baby steps like these, that don’t have immediate payoffs, to affect change.   

If you are serious about the quality of our workforce, the future of our kids, and the health of our economy, open your doors and open your hearts and partner with our local schools.      

From the 05 October 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Thursday, October 1, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The wooly bear – the Tom Jolls of the animal kingdom

A few weeks ago in this column we discussed the hickory tussocks moth and its poisonous caterpillar. The general rule of thumb posed at the time was that you shouldn’t handle any hairy caterpillars.

Wooly bear caterpillars are cute and fuzzy — and safe to handle. (PHOTOS
An exception to that rule can be made, though, for the wooly bear, an abundant insect of the Niagara Frontier. The hairy little critter does not have any poisonous hairs and there’s a good chance that you or your child have picked up one of these cute, inviting insects. Without the defensive weapons that other moth larva might have, you will have noticed that the wooly bear curls up into a ball when handled or disturbed.

The wooly bear is especially noticeable in September and October when you will see many of them crawling across roads, driveways, sidewalks and other warm surfaces. When doing so, they are trying to find the warmest place to hibernate. Whereas many months will winter over as pupa in cocoons, most wooly bears do not. Instead, they curl up and freeze solid, become unthawed and lively again in the spring when they go about building cocoons. During the winter months, you might find them under items in or around your garage or the foundation of your home where they glean as much warmth and protection from predators as they can.

If there are two broods in a year, some caterpillars that were born early in the summer will spend the winter as pupae in small, light-brown cocoons made of their hairs. Those cocoons will blossom into the Isabella moth, which is a rather plain-looking yellow or cream colored month about an inch and a half long.

Some people believe that the more red wooly bear caterpillars have in the
middle, the milder winter will be.
The wooly bear caterpillar’s tell-tale banded appearance, which has black hairs at its ends and a wide reddish-brown band in the center, has led to much speculation about its magical ability to predict the severity of the coming winter. Old wives tales say that the wider the red band and the smaller the black bands, the less severe the winter will be.

It’s a silly belief, as no animal has such powers, but, nonetheless, a few scientists have tried to prove that wooly bears are good forecasters. The most famous of these studies was done by Dr. Curran of the American Museum of Natural History. He and his wife studied wooly bear band lengths for nine consecutive years beginning in 1948 and they predicted the severity of the winter as a cutesy article for the New York Herald Tribune.

In those years, the red bands were large, the forecast pleasant and the winters that followed were mild. That led many to believe the myths and the wooly bear became the most recognizable caterpillar in the country.

So, did that study actually prove that wooly bears knew what was coming?

Not so fast.

Numerous studies that followed showed that the middle band represented how old the caterpillar was and how close to building a cocoon it might be. If the previous winter was mild, the first brood of young hatched earlier in the year, so, come the fall, they were older and, in turn, their bands wider. So, the caterpillar’s coloration more likely indicates how mild or severe the previous winter was and not what the coming one will be like.

But, it still serves as good, folksy fun. If you spend any amount of time outside in the fall, you will encounter numerous wooly bears. Take a moment to admire the cute buggers and see if they really do have the ability to forecast the weather like a veritable Tom Jolls of the animal kingdom.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he hopes wooly bears will tell him that the winter will be mild, especially after the last one we had. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 01 October 2015 East Niagara Post

Scouting is the perfect program for your son

With the start of the school year comes a constant bombardment of recruitment and advertising for extracurricular activities, clubs, bands and sports teams. With such an overwhelming number of choices it can be tough for a boy and his parents to decide what to do. Families find themselves either doing too much (putting undue financial and scheduling stress on everyone) or nothing at all (feeling unable to satisfy their desire to better their sons).
Scouting – the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts -- is a one-stop source that can alleviate all that stress and worry. It combines the best of everything else into an all-encompassing program, one guaranteed to keep a boy’s attention and interest and make him a better man. For today’s busy parents, it’s a convenient option for those who feel spread thin: It’s one meeting a week, one campout a month, and one week-long trip a year. That’s it.

That small investment of time can create a lifetime of memories and, more importantly, a lifetime of success. Scouting accounts for better students, better citizens, and a better America by instilling timeless values and character into young men.

Think about American icons like Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Walter Cronkite, and William DeVries.  All of them were members of the Boy Scouts of America who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and went on to do great things.

Would they have contributed to society as much as they did were they not scouts? Would they have led our nation, walked on the moon, spoke to a people, or transplanted hearts? Maybe. Maybe not.

What can be said with some certainty, though, is that Scouting had a significant impact on their lives and is partially responsible for what drove them to greatness. It taught them the values of community, work ethic and leadership which cannot be found elsewhere. It has done the same for millions of young men since its inception in 1910, inspiring, if not creating, yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

The Scouting program is just as important today as it was over a century ago. It could even be argued that it might have greater significance now. It’s the perfect outlet for today’s youth and it can help them overcome some of the obstacles in their paths. There’s a lot missing in their lives: Their outdoor pursuits have taken a back seat to electronics, they don’t share the same bond with their real-world communities that they do with their trivial Internet communities, schools have lost sight of civic education, and they struggle to find continuity in broken homes which, sadly, have become the norm.

Scouting addresses all those issues and then some. Camping and other outdoor activities are the cornerstone of the Scouting program, using the struggles and successes of pastoral adventure as a source of experiential learning, teaching the boys a wide variety of skills accompanied by a powerful mix of leadership, teamwork, self-reliance and self-confidence. Scouting also gets them out and about in their towns and villages, fostering a sense of civic pride and a desire to help make better the world around them. It is all of this - in combination with the guidance provided by peers and scoutmasters - that can give today’s youth the support needed to survive a broken home or beat a broken community.

Take it from someone who was a Boy Scout and achieved the rank of Eagle. I know I would not be the man I am now had it not been for Scouting. I never would have been a columnist or activist without its inspiring ways. Secondary schools and colleges spend such little time on civic and community responsibility that to most folks it’s an afterthought. Scouting’s lessons more than made up for that and created the drive behind these columns, not to mention the values that I apply in my day-to-day decisions. Scouting was so important to me that I place its importance on my upbringing and foundation second behind my family and far ahead of schooling at a distant third. It’s that significant.

It can have that same effect on your son, too. I strongly suggest that he give it a try. Visit and click on “join scouting” to find a pack, troop, or scout council near you. Becoming a Scout is a decision your son – and you - won’t regret.

 From the 28 September 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers