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Tough Cookies : At their first meeting, teen-age members of the Scout group Sisters United talk about peer pressure, gang violence and their hopes for the future.


Six energetic teen-age girls and two fairly subdued women sat around a table in the Girl Scout field office in Ventura, the seasonal peanut butter and thin mint cookies spread before them, as they discussed their new troop, No. 835.

It was a good turnout, but a couple of girls who had planned to attend didn't make it. One was being punished by her parents. The other couldn't make it because her cousin was in the hospital with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The meeting, held earlier this month, was the first official get-together of this group of girls from either Port Hueneme or Oxnard, and some critical decisions had to be made.

Most importantly, what name would they give themselves?

It was a difficult decision. It had to be a name representative of the group as a whole. They offered Partners in Crime, Breaking the Law, The Drifters. By the end of the meeting they settled on Sisters United.

Despite their youth--one of the six is 13, the others are 16--they have all had rough, complicated lives, certainly more complicated than that of the average Scout.

"They are either in alternative schools or have been dropouts, or gang members, or they are going to be gang members," said Mary Ann Morales, a full-time membership specialist with the Ventura County Girl Scout chapter. "Some have never joined Girl Scouts because they think it's nerdy. These are girls you would see in the street and run the other way."

The girls became involved in Scouting, said Morales, because they want to change their lives. To keep the girls involved in Scouting, she emphasized, it is important to focus on issues relevant to their lives.

"We are trying to say to them, 'You are going to prove to the community that you are somebody,' " explained Morales, who will be in charge of Sisters United until she can find a suitable replacement.

Morales sees herself as a good role model.

"I grew up in Oxnard, but as a teen-ager I was involved with a lot of outside recreation, running the streets," she said. "I'm saying, if I can do this--be a professional--then they can too."

This inspirational message permeated that first meeting of Sisters United, as the girls discussed past and present struggles and their hopes for the future.

Anna Magallanes, Morales' 16-year-old niece, is a member of the troop. She is a student at the Visions Interagency Program, or VIP, a continuation school for troubled youths. She has lived in a foster home for the past six years. And she is pregnant.

Angel Morales, Mary Ann Morales' daughter, is also a member. She will probably complete her high school education next year at the Frontier High continuation school in Camarillo--a major accomplishment considering she skipped three years of school.

Two of the other girls in the troop also attend Frontier High. Rosemary Lawrence is one of them. "I ran away three times last year," she said. "I didn't hardly ever go to school."

There was some concern as to how acquaintances will react when they discover their street buddies are Girl Scouts. But it was only mild concern.

"People are going to ridicule us for some time," said Frontier student Kim Feckers. "It's going to take awhile. But if you really get to know the girls in Colonia, the Cryps, the Chiques, they are really caring people."

Added 13-year-old Priscilla Shrauger: "When they find out all the things we are doing and they are still sitting on their butts, they are going to be wondering what's going on." Although the troop hasn't planned its activities yet, it did attend an all-day youth leadership council program last weekend, sponsored by El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.

The girls giggled and doodled as they discussed some of their shared experiences. They talked about people they had seen gunned down.

"You can't go out on the streets without getting shot at," Feckers said.

They discussed their boyfriends, all of whom are gang members. They joked about going camping and hunting, not for animals, but for boys. And they joked about selling Girl Scout cookies with switch blades in hand.

"I bet you could sell some cookies, no problem," said Marjorie Mata, also a Ventura County membership specialist.

They talked about parents who didn't understand them. They talked about getting arrested.

"It's embarrassing when your mom knows all the police at the Oxnard police station," Feckers said.

As the meeting progressed, it was apparent the girls had formed a support group as much as a Girl Scout troop. To facilitate free expression, Morales created a troop rule uncommon to Girl Scouts.

"A lot of times in a troop you have to act a certain way," Morales said. "We want these girls to be comfortable enough to yell out the window of a car, as long as it's not obscene."

Mata added two other caveats: No one should be embarrassed to say anything they want to say during a meeting, and nothing is to be repeated outside.

The girls discussed how it would feel to participate in activities that didn't involve drinking.

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