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Promising to Do Their Best to Save the Girl Scouts : Children: Faced with a decline in volunteer troop leaders and changing demographics, the organization has had to adapt to stay a vital part of girlhood.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nevis Capos concentrates on Math Blaster, oblivious to her peers bouncing around the room. Corralled within a makeshift science lab on the second floor of a church, the girls are learning about static cling, why butterflies change colors, how airplanes take off. They analyze slides through a microscope and make lamps from paper cups and lace.

“My favorite is to play with the computer,” said Capos, 6, who is also learning to speak English. “I never used one before I came here.”

The 3-year-old Girl Scout Math and Science Center in South-Central Los Angeles is one of the ways in which the 83-year-old Girl Scouts of the USA is trying to reach girls in the ‘90s. Faced with a decline in stay-at-home moms--a.k.a. troop leaders--and a steady influx of immigrants unfamiliar with Scouting, the organization has had to regroup in recent years to maintain its place in American girlhood.

Founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low, the Scouts aim to teach girls to set goals and to instill strong values. Its 3.4 million members nationwide are divided by age into five levels: Daisies, Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes and Seniors. After peaking in 1969 with more than 4 million members, the ranks slowly dwindled. But recent changes have put membership on the upswing again.

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On the national level, the Scouts have tried to reflect the times. The girls can choose from a new array of updated uniforms and earn badges in healthy eating and self-esteem. A “contemporary issues program” addresses such topics as substance abuse, child abuse and suicide prevention. And the members are told that the word “God” in the Girl Scout Promise is open to individual interpretation.

Locally, the organization has adapted by creating an earthquake patch and establishing centers where girls who attend year-round schools can spend their vacation time.

It has also diversified its programs. Nearly 15,000 girls, ages 5 through 17, in the Angeles Girl Scout Council attend meetings in homes and homeless shelters, schools and community centers, churches, temples and mosques. Eight languages are spoken.

Florence Newsom, executive director of the council, says the leaders do their best to keep the girls interested. When one group of Brownies wanted to dance, a dancing troop was created. A Girl Scout basketball league is now under way. The unconventional troops are reaching children who might otherwise never join, leaders say.

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At the Harbor Interfaith Homeless Shelter in San Pedro, Melissa Medina makes a poster noting all the places the Scouts have visited in the last month, from a Pizza Hut to the library.

Leaders Cathy Apodaca and Lori Gilbert circulate, helping the school-aged kids--girls and boys--with their homework, while younger Scouts play tag outside. After a snack of a granola bar and juice, they all gather around a red, white and blue crayon bucket to recite the Girl Scout Promise and Pledge of Allegiance.

Because the shelter offers only a temporary residence, the 5-year-old troop is always full of new faces. Melissa, 14, moved out of the shelter to a nearby apartment with her family six months ago. But she and her 4-year-old sister return on weekdays after school.

“Before I came here I was doing really bad in school, but now I get really good grades,” Melissa said. “The teachers think a miracle happened to me.”

The Girl Scout Math and Science Center, in the Casa de Alfarero Church on East 25th Street, also strives to fill an academic void. The mad scientist Scouts, as many as 300 each year, work amid the leather booths and under the Spanish tile roof of what was once a Mexican restaurant. The former kitchen is strewn with supplies. The center was opened in response to studies showing that girls receive less attention from teachers in the classroom, particularly in math and science courses. The girls’ self-esteem and self-confidence slip as a result.

But plenty of troops still have the traditional meetings, once a week, after school. Troop 1500 in Torrance, for example, has been together for two years. The 17 Brownies, all third-graders now, spend Tuesday afternoons preparing to move up to Juniors.

At a recent meeting in the La Romeria Park clubhouse, the girls make dunk bags for an April camping trip to Malibu Creek. Divided into four groups, they take turns labeling mauve plastic dish sets and stringing together the net bags that will hold the dishes after washing. Then they sing a silly song, “I’m Going to Kentucky.”

The girls seem like sisters. They bicker over who gets to do what first and over the exact song lyrics, but they also pitch in to help a newcomer learn the Girl Scout Promise. And they’re serious about the lessons taught here by volunteer leaders Cathy Rohweller and Janet Jankowski.

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“We learn lots of stuff, like how to prepare for an earthquake and how to look for danger,” said Tiffany Connor.

“And how you should always tell your buddy the truth,” added Kristina Pace.

Leaders such as Rohweller and Jankowski are hard to come by in the era of two-career families. In many cases, working mothers share the responsibility of a troop. Some take turns running weekend meetings, while others meet semimonthly so they have more time for their own families.

The organization continues to face many challenges.

In such places as the South Bay, where leaders have decided to keep troops small, many girls are stuck on waiting lists. In East Los Angeles, the group is underrepresented because Latino immigrants tend to see it as elitist, says Robin Morhar, a director of membership services for the Angeles Council. Only well-to-do people in South American cities, for example, participate in such programs.

Finding volunteer leaders is the council’s first priority, but it has instituted the Discovery Troop Program to serve areas where they are scarce. Once a week, paid leaders conduct meetings at 22 schools stretching from Highland Park to Wilmington. The goal is to create a troop where none would otherwise exist.

Despite all the innovations in Scouting, one thing has remained constant over the years. After a certain age, most girls don’t want to wear the optional uniform. Although they were updated last year to include such separates as jumpers, leggings, oversize sweat shirts and baseball caps, most girls go without. Even a switch from Kelly green to teal in the Juniors outfit hasn’t seemed to help.

Troop 1213, which meets on Friday nights in Little Tokyo, is the exception. “The girls like wearing the uniform; they’re proud of it,” said leader Susan Saita. “It makes them feel as if they are part of a group.”

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For most, though, the novelty wears off quickly.

“When they were in first grade, they loved wearing the uniform,” said Rohweller of Troop 1500, adding that she plans to offer extra Brownie points for wearing the uniform. “They liked it in second grade, too, but by third grade the uniform sort of fell by the wayside,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll start wearing at least a piece of it.”


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