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Tampa Tribune

Saying Si' To Scouting

Rising numbers of Latinas join the Girl Scouts as the organization reaches out to an underrepresented community.


July 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

TAMPA -- Since she was in the first grade, Valeria Ortega has attended weekly Girl Scout meetings, swapped homemade pins, peddled those famous cookies and, most important, she says, learned about herself.

"I've met so many girls," the 12-year-old says. "And not just one race, all kinds of girls. I've learned a lot about respecting myself and others. It's really neat."

While Girl Scout leaders say the program can be particularly beneficial to young Latinas, attracting the girls has proved challenging. For the past five years, the local Girl Scouts of Suncoast Council has offered training manuals and literature in Spanish; partnered with local missions, schools and churches; and reached out to communities with high concentrations of Latinos through visits, fliers and advertisements.

The effort may be responsible for the growing numbers of Latina Scouts. Ten years ago, 372 girls -- 6 percent of Hillsborough County Scouts -- identified themselves as Latina. Last year, 1,640 -- nearly 16 percent -- said they were Hispanic. About 18 percent of the county's population is Hispanic, according to 2000 census figures.

The Suncoast Council includes Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Hernando counties, with Hillsborough having by far the largest number of Latina Scouts.

"Everyone is looking for a safe environment for their girls where they can learn different things," says Michelle Mazuros, a manager with the council. "We're more aware there are Hispanic young women and girls in our community, and we want to be able to offer them Girl Scouting. We're always looking for ways to do that."

Scouting exposes girls to opportunities and role models they may not see in their day-to-day lives, leaders say. And it addresses problems that are particularly prevalent among Hispanic girls: teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school, obesity.

"I try to teach my girls not to be what the stereotype of Latinas is," says Blanca Ortega, mother of Valeria and co-leader of Troop 411. "Many Hispanic girls are encouraged to stay at home, get married and have babies. We [Girl Scouts] teach our girls they can be anything they want to be."

But Scouting also reinforces positive values many Latino children learn at home, says Zaida Torres, a membership executive with the council.

"The values in the Hispanic culture are similar to what we teach girls in Scouting: honesty, integrity, self-esteem," Torres says. "These are qualities that will get them far in life."

Speaking Their Language

On a national level, Girl Scouts USA has undertaken several initiatives to attract Latinas. Most recently, it established a Latino advisory board. Last month, it unveiled espanol, a Spanish-language Web site.

Last week, girls and adults from across the country converged on Savannah, Ga., birthplace of the Girl Scouts, for the fourth annual National Latina Conference.

Much of the real work is done at the local level by people such as Torres.

"The face-to-face approach is more important" to Hispanics, says Torres, who travels to elementary and middle schools to talk about Scouting.

"It's about trust for them. When they see someone like them, who speaks their language, there's more trust. They want to know you understand them and their culture."

Torres brings along Spanish-language versions of handbooks, such as "Guia Familiar Sobre las Girl Scouts," a Scouting guide for girls and their parents.

She tries to connect culturally, too.

"The idea still exists in the Latin community that Girl Scouts are for girls that are the cream of the crop," meaning wealthy, she says. "We need to build trust with the girls so they know this is for them, too. They are welcome here."

Most girls in Scouting have a family tradition of involvement. That's not usually the case in the Hispanic community, Torres says.

Hispanics don't encourage their daughters to join Girl Scouts because they simply don't know about the group, she says. And Hispanic parents tend to be very protective. They can be leery of putting their daughters in after-school activities.

That's where Valeria Ortega and her sister, 13-year-old Katie, are different.

All Different; All The Same

Blanca Ortega, the girls' mom, was 9 when friends coaxed her into joining Girl Scouts in 1975. One of nine children being raised by a single parent in Ruskin, Ortega says the community was essentially segregated at the time. Before Scouting, she had little contact with whites or blacks -- middle-class or not.

She still recalls with enthusiasm going on her first camping trip, singing Christmas carols door-to-door and attending arts and crafts classes.

She also remembers how troop leaders taught her leadership skills, self-respect and values.

"I met girls who were different than me, but we were all treated the same," says Ortega, 38. "As an adult, I'm able to look back now and realize the positive impact it had on me."

So she became co-leader of Troop 411 in Ruskin. About half- Hispanic, the troop draws from some of the area's most racially diverse neighborhoods: Apollo Beach, Palm River, Progress Village, Ruskin and Wimauma. They hail from Latin American countries including Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

The troop has partnered with organizations such as Good Samaritan Mission, Beth El Mission and Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which help mostly Hispanic migrant workers and their families in Ruskin and Wimauma.

"There's no question that in this area Girl Scouting is needed," Ortega says. "These girls come from all economic backgrounds. And they are eager to explore each other's customs and traditions."

Last year, Ortega's church held a Posada, a Mexican Christmas celebration. All of her troop members took part.

"This helps the girls embrace multiculturalism," she says. "We live in a multicultural world. The more you learn about others' traditions and customs, the more comfortable you become."

Her daughter Katie agrees.

"I've learned to be more confident in myself," she says. "Learning about other people is fun."

"I think it's great that Mom wanted us to get involved," Valeria adds.

Ortega hopes her girls will hang on to that. When they and the other Latina Scouts grow up, she wants them to serve as mentors for the next generation.

"It's important that the Hispanics who have experienced Girl Scouts don't forget that experience," Ortega says. "There are many girls who would benefit from Girl Scouts if they knew about it."

She's confident her girls will continue the family tradition.

"My daughters will look back and say, "Hey, Mom was right about Girl Scouts.' "

For information about becoming a Girl Scout or a Scout volunteer, call toll-free 1-866-830-8700 for Spanish, 1-800-478-7248 for English.

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