Boy Scouts see Hispanics as key to boosting ranks

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, December 27, 2008

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — As it prepares to turn 100, the Boy Scouts of America is honing its survival skills for what might be its biggest test yet: drawing Hispanics into its declining — and mostly white — ranks.

“We either are going to figure out how to make Scouting the most exciting, dynamic organization for Hispanic kids, or we’re going to be out of business,” said Rick Cronk, former national president of the Boy Scouts, and chairman of the World Scout Committee.

The venerable Scouts remains the United States’ largest youth organization, with 2.8 million children and youths, nearly all of them boys. But that is nearly half its peak membership, reached in 1972.

Its rolls took hits through the 1980s and ’90s over a still-standing ban on gay or atheist leaders, and scandals surrounding inflated membership numbers. In addition, teenagers raised on TV and shoot-’em-up games had less use for learning to build a campfire or memorize the Scout oath.

The country changed too. One in five children under 18 is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census. But they make up only 3 percent of Scouts.

Cronk made Hispanic outreach a focus after he realized that just translating brochures into Spanish, or combining Cub Scouting with soccer, was not enough to meet the goal of doubling Hispanic membership by the group’s centennial in 2010.

“We were nibbling around the edges,” Cronk said. “We knew very little about the Hispanic family, how they see us, what they value.”

Cronk, past president of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, grew up a city kid in Oakland, Calif. He fell in love with Scouting in the Sierra Nevada, during his first backpacking excursions.

He looked at the problem of Latino underrepresentation as a businessman. The Boy Scouts had a good product but much of its new consumer base had never heard of it.

So the group set out to sell Scouting, hiring a Washington-based media and marketing company that targets Latinos. To spread the word, the Scouts gathered a committee of Hispanic leaders, including the CEO of AT&T’s wireless unit, a U.S. senator from Florida and the archbishop of the Diocese of Laredo.

In 2009, the Boy Scouts is kicking off pilot programs in six heavily Latino cities, from Fresno, Calif. to Orlando, Fla., to test ways of introducing Scouting to immigrant parents. The group is also planning radio and television spots, hiring bicultural, Spanish-speaking staffers, partnering with churches that serve Hispanics and shaping programs to fit the family-oriented community.

“We’re serious about this,” said Rob Mazzuca, Chief Scout Executive. “This is a reinventing of the Boy Scouts of America.”

To work, the changes will have to run deep, said Julio Cammarota, a University of Arizona professor who has researched Hispanic youth.

Scouts will have to work with Latinos’ strong family connections and relax the focus on individual achievement, Cammarota said. Creating activities where younger boys learn from the older ones — much as they rely on siblings and cousins within the extended family — will also feel more comfortable.

“They’d be better off starting with a carne asada in a city park,” Cammarota said. “Sending their kids away on their own, that’s not familiar.”

Scouting’s traditional values dovetail well with those of Hispanic families — respect, discipline, and community involvement — said Carlos Alcazar, CEO of Hispanic Communications Network, which developed the 2009 strategy after conducting a yearlong survey of Hispanic attitudes toward the Scouts.

As a dozen boys wearing the light blue Soccer and Scouting jerseys tumbled into an auditorium in San Jose’s Seven Trees Elementary School, nearly breathless from a game played in the December chill, it was clear they loved the program — certainly the soccer part of it. But the connection to Scouting remained tenuous.

Michael Gudino, 7, and his brother Matthew Gudino, 6, talked about what they loved best: dribbling the ball, learning to pass and playing on a real field.

Pressed on what they like about Scouting, they stopped to think.

“Learning to be nice to each other?” Michael said tentatively. “Folding the flag?”

Their mother, Sandy Gudino, was pleased to find that Scouting was no more expensive than other youth activities, and she likes the discipline that comes with it.

Valente Morales, whose 6-year-old son Valentin’s soccer skills had improved in just a few months, was won over by the coach — a Hispanic parent like himself.

“The trust came from becoming familiar with the people who run it, the people in this community,” he said.

While soccer may be the draw, the Scouts’ challenge is to keep the youngsters involved when the game is over, said Marcos Nava, director of the National Hispanic Initiatives Division, who was visiting the San Jose program.

“One hundred years — that’s a great benchmark for us,” Nava said. “But we have to remember, to Hispanics, we’re just at the introduction, the basics. Because if we don’t get past that stage, we won’t live to see another 100 years.”