On the ashes of Boys Home of the South organization, Trail Life USA flourishes

BELTON — Set out away from the city, down a fairly empty expanse of Highway 25, sits the headquarters of Trail Life USA in southern Greenville County.

The 127-acre property is mostly trails and wooded areas — covered in pine needles and American Sweetgum leaves — dotted with a few cottages, a gymnasium and a chapel.

Trail Life USA, a Christ-centered alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, got its start on the property about two and a half years ago when the previous tenant, the Boys Home of the South, folded.

Troubled past

The property belonged to Charles Aiken, the now-deceased founder of the boys home, which closed its doors permanently after a web of lawsuits in 2014 alleging mismanagement and sexual abuse.

Aiken, who was far-removed from the home and the lawsuits when he died in 2006 in Kentucky, created the home to help boys who had been abandoned, orphaned or abused.

One of the suits, which made national news in 2013, was filed on behalf of a minor, identified only as John Doe, who said a boy in the home sexually assaulted him twice in March 2011 and that staff of the Boys Home of the South and the Department of Social Services failed to adequately investigate the incidents.

The court filing said Doe was assaulted twice when he was 11 years old by his roommate, who was older and had a history of inappropriate sexual behavior — one attack happened in the bedroom when the supervisor was at the front of the cottage, the other at night while the supervisor was asleep.

Both parties settled for an undisclosed amount.

In another lawsuit, filed in 2014 on behalf of a John Roe, a court filing said an employee of Boys Home of the South brutally raped and sexually assaulted him seven times when he was 13, leaving permanent physical and emotional damage. Roe reported the assaults to staff several times, the filing said, but the complaints were not followed up on and staff accused him of lying.

“That Roe suffered the attacks and sexual assaults and the injuries set out in this Complaint as the direct and proximate result of SCDSS’s and its employees’ and agents’ torturous acts,” the document said.

The lawsuit has yet to be resolved.

The start of Trail Life USA

Not long after the Boy Scouts of America reversed a policy forbidding “open and avowed” gay Scouts in 2013, as well as scoutmasters in 2015, a grassroots group of about 50 Christian leaders met in Louisville, Kentucky to separate from the Boy Scouts and create a similar, Christ-centered organization.

Mark Hancock, CEO of Trail Life, said the group was made up of former Boy Scouts and scoutmasters as well as Christian media representatives and leadership.

“Basically, 50 people came kind of anonymously with the idea of a Christ-centered, outdoor, character and leadership organization for boys,” Hancock said.

Hancock said the separation had been coming for a while, but the policy change that got Christian leaders to meet in Kentucky was the encouragement of gays to join and be in leadership.

“For a number of years, the Boy Scouts had been kind of drifting from their original, what they call ‘timeless values,’ and one of the changes that they made was a membership standards change that was so drastic that caused a lot of their chartering partners, which a majority of those being churches, were not able to engage with them anymore,” Hancock said.

Hancock acknowledged that gays are allowed to join Trail Life, albeit they cannot be in leadership, but he said it’s different from the Boy Scouts’ policy.

“Of course for years there were homosexuals in Boy Scouts, and I would imagine even in Trail Life, but the breaking point was the ‘open and avowed’ thing, to where they were forcing their charter partners to acknowledge that as a lifestyle to be encouraged, and the churches just couldn’t go along with that,” Hancock said. “We think there’s no better place for boys who are confused about their sexuality to be, than around men and boys. So we consider ourselves a ministry there.”

Since the Boy Scouts opened its membership policy, Hancock said, there have been more decisions that didn’t suit some churches.

“Even more recently transgender boys, which is essentially allowing girls to be in Boy Scouts — and so this succession of changes just didn’t work with the timeless values,” Hancock said.

Trail Life USA, like Boy Scouts, has a series of rankings based on trail badges that ultimately leads to the Freedom Award, which is comparable to the Eagle Scout award.

The organization started with about 500 troops when it opened at the Boys Home of the South property in 2014. Today it has 700 troops and about 26,000 members in 48 states.

David Davis, a troopmaster of the Greenwood chapter of Trail Life USA, said few of the troop’s members had participated in Boy Scouts.

“I think of the Boy Scouts as being duty to God and Trail Life being specifically duty to Christ. It is not multiple gods or any god, it’s duty to Christ, and it’s more of a Christian-based, and it’s more of a church-base, where many Boy Scout units would meet at a church or at the Y or somewhere like that, Trail Life is specifically out of a church — it’s a local church ministry,” Davis said.

In order to gain the trail badges, the “trailmen” must complete tasks that include not only service projects, but faith-based challenges.

“We have a lot of people that ask, ‘Why did you leave Boy Scouts?’ Well we didn’t leave Boy Scouts — they left us,” Hancock said.

On the ashes

Trail Life’s headquarters is located where Boys Home of the South once was, and in honor of Aiken’s vision, the headquarters is named Camp Aiken.

Although Trail Life didn’t pay a penny for the property, the organization is not associated with the Boys Home, and it took about two years before the process was complete.

In August 2014 the property was being used as the headquarters, although it was still in the name of the Boys Home. By December of 2015, the CEO of the Boys Home — Al Squire — had sent out a press release saying the property would not be given to Trail Life because their goals didn’t align.

Less than one month later, the board of trustees of the Boys Home of the South rescinded that press release.

“It was released by their former CEO and he was not speaking for the board, so they withdrew that,” Hancock said.

The Boys Home chose Trail Life out of 31 organizations to receive its property, without paying for any of it.

“We named it Camp Aiken to acknowledge his passion and his vision for helping boys,” Hancock said. “Their motto was something like, ‘Building men, mending boys,’ and they started, from my understanding, with a Christian mission to help orphans, and eventually they moved over into foster care, and so when they looked back and looked at the original intent of Mr. Aiken and what his heart was, they felt like our organization that raises godly young men was the closest and was a good match to his vision.”


Although the Boys Home’s doors ultimately closed mired in controversy and tragedy, Hancock said he believes some good came out of it.

He doesn’t consider any failings of the boys home to be a part of Trail Life’s foundation, but rather the start of a reset of Aiken’s original vision.

“The course that the Boys Home took over the years, you could make the argument that they drifted from that original vision and it became something else, that may be true, but it’s neat that God can have in his heart this 127 acres and say, ‘I am going to purchase that back for something that’s holy and good and helps boys even though there may be some marks in its history,” Hancock said.