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Reaching Out for Scouts : The Ventura County chapter places a priority on recruiting non-traditional members.


Close your eyes. Imagine a Girl Scout. What does she look like? Now open them and take a close look. She may not be the same girl she once was.

In recent years, the national Girl Scout organization has established a number of programs aimed at recruiting disadvantaged and minority girls as well as other "non-traditional" Scouts who have not hooked up with Scouting through organized troops. And the Ventura County chapter of the tri-county Tres Condados Girl Scout Council is keeping up with the times.

Since hiring bilingual membership specialist Marjorie Mata two years ago, the approximately 8,500-member Ventura County chapter has recruited more heavily in Latino communities, particularly in Fillmore and Santa Paula. Since then, countywide Latina membership has increased 5%.

Mata said there were once 13 troops in Fillmore and nine in Santa Paula. When she joined the staff, however, there was but a single troop in each place.

The drop-off rate, Mata said, wasn't the result of disinterest on the part of Latino families in the two cities. It was more a matter of not knowing what was available.

"We weren't producing what we needed for minorities," she said. "I just canvassed the towns. I did fliers, talked to churches, leaders in town, fast-food places, anybody who would listen to me. Then the parents came out of the woodwork."

Since then, the number of troops in each city has climbed to 12.

Then last month, community outreach veteran Mary Ann Morales joined the Ventura staff as another membership specialist. That was the impetus for forming a new troop for troubled girls in the Oxnard and Port Hueneme area. Members named the troop "Sisters United." And with Mata and Morales working together, more alternative Scouting programs loom in the immediate future.

This spring they plan to target the Ventura and Oxnard Head Start programs, which are federally funded educational services for low-income, preschool-age children. Shortly thereafter, they plan to contact the Zoe Christian Center to set up an in-center troop for homeless girls, which has been well-received in Los Angeles County.

Mata and Morales believe that the key to attracting and communicating with all non-traditional Girl Scouts, as well as their parents, is to talk to them about real social issues. It's not all arts and crafts and wilderness safety. There are programs concerning drug use, teen suicide, literacy, cultural differences and other contemporary issues.

And to help ensure the success of the newest troops, Mata and Morales are trying to round up community support from other county organizations and representatives.

While these new approaches take root, in-school Scouting--the oldest and largest of the county's alternative programs--continues to flourish.

The elementary school program, created in conjunction with the Boy Scouts of America, takes Scouting into classrooms, offering children the chance to participate in many of the same activities as they they would in traditional troops. It's a program that has been going on in Oxnard and Santa Paula for 14 years, but Mata said involvement has increased considerably over the past couple of years.

Some of the girls involved are from migrant farm families living in rural areas. They are bused to school, which makes it difficult for them to attend after-school Girl Scout meetings.

"More people are calling schools and asking, 'Could my girl be in the in-school program?"' she said. "I've particularly found that Latino fathers feel that it's more safe, something the school is providing, instead of going to a troop after school."

Piru and Moorpark are next on Mata's agenda. In Piru, she said "there are a lot of migrant workers who can't get to the middle of town for meetings."

As for Moorpark, she said, the city "has gone from nine troops a few years ago to 32 troops, but the high Hispanic population is not being served."

Nor are the needs of African-Americans, said Morales. Although blacks make up 2% of the county's general population, they represent a mere .75% of the Girl Scout population.

Mata and Morales hope that by continuing to tailor Scouting to the needs of individual communities, they will reach a more diverse population.

"We have to realize that there are minorities in areas not being served," Morales said. "We will reach them, not through their parents, but through community service."

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