Scouting: A Duty to God, Country . . . and Minorities : Immigrants: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of Orange County take bold steps to increase ethnic membership.


Robert Fournel couldn’t believe it. A Boy Scout in his youth, Fournel wanted his 9-year-old son to enjoy the same experience. But the 31-year-old father recently learned that the boy’s Santa Ana elementary school had no Cub Scout troop--and hardly any other parent seemed to care.

The reason, he discovered, was that many of the parents had immigrated to the United States from Cambodia, Vietnam and Mexico, foreign lands where the Scouts are far from a fixture.

So in December, Fournel started a Cub Scout troop. The pack, which quickly expanded from the original eight boys to the current 20, is a medley of ethnic diversity. Today, the Scout leader is struggling to cope, relying on some parents to serve as interpreters for others.


Fournel’s fledgling Cub Scout troop is a small part of an uphill battle being waged by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in Orange County to recruit members from the region’s burgeoning minority population.

Long a bastion of white, middle-class suburbia, Scouting is taking bold steps to appeal to ethnic minorities, who officials say stand to benefit from the structured recreation and educational experience that the organization offers.

Advocates of Scouting say it can help immigrant families meld into their communities and learn to value volunteerism and community service, concepts that are often foreign to their cultures but play a prominent role in the United States.

Moreover, they warn that unless ethnic minorities are aggressively recruited, the 80-year-old tradition of American Scouting, which stresses values of self-discipline and duty owed to God and country, could begin to fade.

“We don’t want to shrink in size and become an exclusive organization,” said Mona Ware, executive director of the Girl Scout Council of Orange County.

To tap into the minority community, both the Boy and Girl Scouts have translated manuals and handbooks into languages such as Spanish and Vietnamese. They’ve hired more bilingual staff. The Orange County Girl Scout Council has even installed special telephone lines at its headquarters in Costa Mesa that answer questions in Spanish and Vietnamese.


“Scouting is a family program. We need the parents today and not manana when they learn the language,” said Luis Gellegos, director of Hispanic Emphasis at the Boy Scouts national headquarters in Irving, Tex.

Of late, however, minority recruitment is lagging. Ware notes that only 17% of the girls in the county’s Scouting programs are from ethnic minorities, although members of minority groups now make up nearly half of the county’s school-age population.

The Boy Scouts don’t keep track of the ethnic composition of its membership. But officials observe that while 27% of all boys belong to Boy Scouts in the Saddleback Valley--which encompasses the predominantly white, middle-class cities of Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel--only 9% of the boys who live in heavily Latino Santa Ana are Scouts.

“We are in no way serving what the potential is,” said Andrew Messer, director of the Orange County Boy Scout Council’s 2-year-old Hispanic Outreach Program. To make greater inroads, the program has hired 12 specialists to pioneer troops in Latino communities.

Scouting organizations have learned that they must be flexible and apply new methods to win over immigrant Latino and Asian families.

Some Boy Scout troops in Orange County don’t roast hamburgers and hot dogs over campfires--they cook egg rolls and fish, Vietnamese style. And some Girl Scout troops speak only Spanish at meetings and break pinatas at parties so they won’t forget their culture or their mother tongue.

The Boy Scouts has sponsored an Orange County soccer program in recognition of that sport’s popularity in Latin America and most of the world. This non-traditional Scout activity has attracted 650 Latino boys who are also encouraged to join the regular Boy Scout organization.

“We have learned that just translating literature in another language and passing it out to children at school to take home will not do the job,” said Ware of the Girl Scouts, noting that “some of the parents can’t read in any language” and some simply do not want to trust their children to strangers.

Another major obstacle, Scouting officials say, has been the difficulty of recruiting minority parents to serve as troop leaders and assistants. The reasons range from economic hardship and family duties to lack of spare time and feelings of inadequacy, stemming in part from language barriers.

“It is tough going because we need to learn the culture and gain credibility and trust with each ethnic group,” said Mary Rose Main, national executive director of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

With few volunteers, the organizations have begun hiring paid staff to serve as troop leaders in minority communities that otherwise would have no Scouting programs. But Scout leaders stress that it’s only a temporary solution.

Paid leaders will never replace parents, in part because of cost, Scout officials say. Recently, a Cub Scout pack in San Juan Capistrano with mostly Latino members was forced to disband because of a shortage of funds to pay the leader.

Scouting officials also argue that paid leaders conflict with tradition. “Volunteers are the heart and soul of this organization,” said Bruce Anderson, former head of the Boy Scouts Hispanic Outreach Program in Orange County.

Fournel, a commercial painter, recalled that when he was a Scout “there were plenty of kids and events were large. Parents would volunteer time and money and transportation and they made everything run really well.”

By contrast, when Fournel asked all parents to attend an award ceremony for his Cub Scout pack last Saturday afternoon, only four showed up, and two of them were his regular assistants.

Like many Boy Scout organizations in minority areas, Fournel’s troop has to be frugal.

Most of the parents in the low-income community were unable to afford entire uniforms for their children and had compromised by purchasing the official regalia from the waist up--shirts, scarves and caps. They didn’t have $35 for the regulation slacks.

Fournel said the next week he would take the boys hiking in Irvine Park if he could find enough parents or other volunteers to drive. He also had devised a plan for the boys to paint a graffiti-scarred wall at an apartment complex in the neighborhood in exchange for $150, which they could use for camping or other excursions.

But that Saturday the boys were just happy to be among friends and learning to be Scouts.

“If I weren’t here I would just be home bored,” said Albert Gomez, 10.

There is no shortage of boys and girls wanting to form new troops in minority neighborhoods, Scout officers say, but it is often difficult to persuade parents to grant permission. Parents worry about the cost, although they are told that dues may be waived for their children and the purchase of uniforms is not required.

Other causes for parental reluctance are rooted in culture.

“Hispanic families tend to be very protective of their children and particularly of their girls, so the idea of their daughter belonging to a club or association outside the school sometimes is very threatening,” said Msgr. Jaime Soto, vicar for the Hispanic community in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and a director of the Girl Scout Council of Orange County.

To help allay parental concerns, some Girl Scout troops in minority communities allow older sisters to accompany younger ones to meetings. And in some cases Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops meet in the same place and at the same time so brothers and sisters can attend together.

Jose Varga, this year’s chairman of the Boy Scout district encompassing Santa Ana, said he plans to “go out on a soapbox” and preach the message to Latino parents that the Boy Scouts is a ready alternative to gangs.

Varga, a Mexican immigrant and member of the Santa Ana police force, said that Scouting, like gangs, offers its members a uniform, group power and the ability to help other people, in this case the broader community rather than just their home barrio.

“The kids can join the biggest gang in the world, the gang in green,” Varga said.

Scout leaders in low-income minority communities say they feel that Scouting is more valuable to their troops than to children in more affluent communities, who are showered with recreational opportunities.

Mary Kay Fry, an Irvine housewife who volunteers to lead a Girl Scout troop in a poor Latino section of Santa Ana, said that for months the girls look forward to the group’s annual field trip.

“They still talk about what we did last year” when they visited Disneyland, she said. With other troops she has led in more affluent neighborhoods, she added: “If we did it last week, it is forgotten the next.”

Scouting officials say their goal is to encourage the children of immigrants to mix into “the mainstream” of Scouting by joining white and multiracial troops. They say many immigrants are eager to do so.

But some immigrant parents choose to send their children to troops that match their own ethnic complexion. Typically, these parents say they want their children to retain pride in their cultural heritage while learning the American way.

Two years ago, the Orange County Boy Scout Council created a district specifically for Vietnamese. De Tan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who oversees the district, said the group has expanded to more than 200 Scouts in 16 units.

While the Vietnamese boys follow American Scouting manuals, Nguyen said, they have their own style. He said Vietnamese parents insist that Scout meetings be held on Saturdays so they won’t interfere with homework, reflecting the Vietnamese emphasis on scholastic achievement.

In addition, Nguyen said, the Scouts celebrate the Chinese New Year, cook Oriental food and have a penchant for discipline, responding more enthusiastically than their Anglo counterparts to commands.

When boys from throughout Southern California attend the annual summer camp in Temecula, Nguyen said, the Vietnamese troops always stand out because “they line up better and listen to the leader better.”

On a recent Saturday, 24 Vietnamese Boy Scouts and 11 Vietnamese Girl Scouts saluted the American flag and began a day’s outing at O’Neill Regional Park in south Orange County. The Girl Scout group was recently formed, consisting of the sisters of the Boy Scouts who had been traveling to the meetings with their brothers.

While the Scouts went about their activities, a group of Vietnamese parents, some of whom had driven their children to the meeting from as far away as Hawthorne, kept company in a picnic area.

The parents commented about how different Scouting had been in Vietnam, where mothers and fathers weren’t expected to participate and the Scout leader would lay down the law to the youths.

They marveled that in America, troop leaders instead welcome questions from the Scouts. By watching this, the parents said, they are learning to discuss decisions with their children in their homes.

“We are closing the communication gap between parents and children,” said troop master Tri Nguyen, observing that parents who don’t know “the democratic way” might lose touch with their U.S.-schooled offspring.

Paul Nguyen, 16, of Orange said he is enjoying the opportunity to share Scouting with his father, Dao.

“I can go home and talk to him, and he will know what I am talking about,” Nguyen said. “We can share a lot more.”

Scouting for Minorities

Although minorities make up nearly half of Orange County’s school-age population, most of the 23,232 Girl Scouts in the county in 1991 were white. And while the Boy Scouts Council of Orange County does not keep ethnic and racial breakdowns, its membership is made up mostly of white, middle-class boys.

Girl Scouts:

Despite aggressive minority recruitment efforts, four of five Girl Scouts in Orange County remain white.

White: 82.4%

Black: 1.4%

Latinos: 10.3%

Asian: 5.4%

American Indian: .3%

Latino numbers up

Latino membership in the Girl Scouts has grown faster than any other minority group.

1991: 10.3%

NOTE: Numbers do not add up to 100% because of rounding. Also, Latinos can be of any race.

Source: Girl Scout Council of Orange County