Whittling at four and a Pinkie at 22: How one young Swede found acceptance in the Scouts.
Growing up was not always easy for Hedvig Mio Ahlström as the young Swede struggled with society’s views on sexuality and gender. But there was always one place that felt safe: the local Scout group. It was there that Ahlström, now 22 and a Rover, found acceptance.
“It’s a very inclusive space and I have always felt safe,” Ahlström explains, distinctive purple spiral earrings bobbing beneath a shock of platinum blond hair. “I never had any trouble of acceptance when I realised I wasn’t straight and that I was transgender.”
Ahlström, who identifies as non-binary, joined the Sea Scouts at the age of eight. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
“I never really thought about it; it was just natural,” the Swede says. “I had basically been a Scout since I was a baby. I learned to whittle when I was four!”
Ahlström’s family were regulars at Vassaro, the largest permanent Scout camp in Sweden, which is set on an island of forest and meadows about 130 kilometres northeast of Stockholm. They would spend the long summer days there every year, enjoying the huge variety of activities available both on land and at sea. As the years went by, Ahlström began to devote more and more time to Scouting, volunteering at the district level from the age of 15, and completing Sweden’s “Blue” hike, including four days spent living aboard a raft two years later. 2011 turned out to be the teen’s game-changing year, as thousands of Scouts from across the globe converged on Stockholm for the World Scout Jamboree. Ahlström was one of the team helping the visitors settle in, and inspired by the event’s international atmosphere began to look for Scouting activities beyond Sweden’s borders, including the possibility of joining the team at KISC, the Permanent Mini Jamboree in the Swiss Alps. Ahlström’s first international trip, though, was to the unpredictable wilds of the Scottish Highlands. The Explorer Belt is a team expedition, requiring participants to walk about 160 kilometres in ten days with the condition that they’re not allowed to pay for either food or accommodation. Ahlström teamed up with a friend to complete the challenge. The Rover’s first application to KISC went missing in the depths of the Internet, but in 2018 - after a year spent teaching maths and science to middle school students - Ahlström became a spring volunteer at the mountain chalet that had won over Lord Baden-Powell nearly 100 years before. Sitting in the chalet’s reception area during a short break from housekeeping duties, Ahlström is wearing the distinctive pink of “The Pinkies” (the volunteers have been wearing the colour since 1989) with a scarf of the Swedish Scouts – an almost black navy with yellow piping. (It’s one of three scarves the Rover has brought to KISC. The other is dark blue with a white stripe and joined by green and red stripes to denote the starboard and port of a ship (from Vassaro)). Short term staff like Ahlström work to a rota, mainly in the kitchen, housekeeping or out on the campsite. As it’s low season there are more staff than guests, but spring provides an opportunity to deep clean kitchens and other areas of the site to prepare for summer when as many as 1,300 people stay at the chalet and campsite. While Ahlström had long dreamed of working in Kandersteg, it was still a big leap, especially having to make new friends.
“Letting people in has been very hard for me,” Ahlström recalls. “In the first 24 hours, it was constant anxiety, and then everything melted away and it’s been amazing ever since. I feel the other ten short term staff are also my siblings, and crazy aunts and uncles. People call it the ‘Pinkie family’ and that’s what it feels like.”
Every Pinkie goes through a training course and those that finish the programme are awarded with the official pink uniform and welcomed to the Pinkie family. The “graduation” evening itself remains a closely guarded secret, but for Ahlström it created a true sense of belonging. “They kept saying welcome to the family and it really felt like it,” the young Scout says. It’s not only the sense of belonging. Ahlström also enjoys the Centre’s international flavour, with staff and guests travelling to Switzerland from all over the world:
“I have the opportunity to learn so much about other countries and other cultures, and also we share this common thing; we are all Scouts. We have this community and network of people we have made and we are all connected.”
Short term staff stay at KISC for three months, but many return for a second stint or for a longer period. On the staff boards made by the volunteers at the start of each season, some faces appear more than once. Ahlström leaves Kandersteg in June, having made lifelong friends among the other volunteers at the centre. After that there’s a friend’s wedding, followed, once again, by Vassaro where Ahlström is volunteering. Scouting is,
“hands down the best thing I’ve ever done,” the self-confessed third-generation Scout says. “We have a saying that Scouting prepares you for life, and I believe that’s true.”