Commemorating a century of service, today's Boy Scouts reach out to minorities

Organization tries to bend suburban stereotype within urban, rural and low-income communities

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It was a scorching afternoon in Millvue Acres, a tidy public housing facility in Clairton. Outside, a few boys rode bicycles in the sun, two to a seat. Inside the Dorothy Davis Learning Center, children sat in the air conditioning and talked, too hot to play.

Then, at 2 p.m., four boys ages 7 to 9 gathered for a weekly meeting and held their hands high. Led by a staff member, they recited the Cub Scout Promise: "Obey the law of the pack!"


CELEBRATING 100 YEARS

Read more and see a photo package of local Boy Scouts today -- a century after the organization was founded.


The scene last week in Clairton, where about 20 percent of the population lives below poverty level, was not what many would imagine when thinking of the Cub Scouts, a division of the Boy Scouts of America. They might instead picture a leafy suburb, an earnest father, a camping trip.

The four boys -- all black, all participants in a program for children in public housing -- were not typical Scouts: Though the local Boy Scouts council does not gather demographic information, it does measure prevalence of Scouts in specific communities. Statistics suggest Scouts are more widespread in areas with low poverty and a largely white population.

But this year, as the Boy Scouts of America celebrate its 100th anniversary, the familiar beige and army green uniforms are appearing in unexpected places, evidence of a push to recruit youth from minority, low-income, urban and rural communities.

By a measure as simple as the excitement shown by the boys in Clairton, the initiative, called "Scoutreach," is working.

"When we're not having it, they all ask me, 'When are we having Boy Scouts?' " said Ericka Gooden, a team leader at the Millvue Acres site, run by the Beverly Jewel Wall Lovelace Children's Program.

Scoutreach, however, is difficult to implement, requiring extra funding and vigilant outreach.

The idea that Scouting is only for children in the suburbs is hard to dispel, said Demetrius Morris, Scoutreach executive for the Greater Pittsburgh Council of the Boy Scouts.

Founded in 1910 by Pittsburgh native William D. Boyce, the Boy Scouts continue to practice many traditional activities, performing service projects, camping in tents and earning merit badges in more than 100 subjects from leather work to law.

But the group's national membership has fallen since 1973, when youth enrollment peaked at 4,852,827. Last year, fewer than 3 million youth were on the rolls.

In the 1970s, the Boy Scouts struggled to integrate the troops. In one North Carolina county, two white Boy Scout districts and one black district were consolidated in 1974, 10 years after passage of the federal civil rights act.

In recent years, the Boy Scouts' banning of openly gay leaders and exclusion of atheists and agnostics prompted lawsuits and ire.

"We absolutely respect those that have different opinions, but we also ask that everyone respect our right to have a certain set of values," said Michael Surbaugh, executive for the Greater Pittsburgh Council.

Amid the controversy, the Boy Scouts quietly made a case for its relevance, welcoming boys who once would have been relegated to a separate district. Scoutreach was created in 1998, instituted earlier under different names. The program serves youth the Scouts believe are "hard to reach," whether urban or rural, though most children targeted by the local council live in minority and low-income communities.


BOY SCOUT FACTS

HISTORY: Boy Scouts of America was founded on Feb. 8, 1910, about a year after Chicago publisher W.D. Boyce learned about a similar movement in England. The BSA also had two notable predecessors in the U.S. -- The Woodcraft Indians and the Sons of Daniel Boone.

MISSION: According to the congressional charter granted in 1916, the purpose of the BSA is to: Promote, through organization and cooperation with other agencies, the ability of boys to do things for themselves and others; to train them in scoutcraft and to teach patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred virtues.

MEMBERSHIP: About 3 million youth in age-related divisions. More than 110 million Americans have been members.

HEADQUARTERS: Irving, Texas. The BSA is governed by a national executive board and directed by a national president, elected by representatives from local councils. For administrative purposes, the BSA is divided into four regions: Western, Central, Southern and Northeast.

ONE MOVEMENT, THREE MAIN PROGRAMS: Cub Scouts for boys from first to fifth grade or ages 5 to 11 1/2. The age-based levels are Tiger Cubs, Wolf, Bear and Webelos Scouts.

Boy Scouts is the flagship for boys ages 10 to 18.

Varsity Scouting is a subdivision for boys ages 14 to 18; it adds a program of sporting activities. The Order of the Arrow is the national honor society for campers based on American Indian traditions.

Venturing is the program for young men and women ages 14 through 21. Sea Scouting is a subdivision, focusing on nautical activities. There are about 100,000 physically or mentally disabled Scouts in the U.S.

NATIONAL SCOUT JAMBOREE: Generally held every four years, this year's is a special edition to celebrate the BSA centennial. From July 26 to Aug. 4, about 45,000 Scouts, leaders and staff from 50 states and several foreign countries will gather at Fort A.P. Hill, near Bowling Green, Va.

WEBSITE: scouting.org.


Today, Scoutreach programs exist in 162 of 297 Scout councils. The Pittsburgh council has devoted special attention to the initiative, designing programs such as "Cub Scouts 1-2-3," a school-based character development project. Two years ago, the council centralized Scoutreach, making it a district.

Today, the council provides Scoutreach in schools and public housing. It also collaborates with established groups in minority and low-income communities, from the Sto-Ken-Rox Boys & Girls Club in McKees Rocks to YouthPlaces, a program for "at-risk" teens in Pittsburgh, Clairton, Duquesne and Wilkinsburg.

"I think the staff has begun to visually reflect some diversity as well," said Lori Schaller, director of YouthPlaces.

Each summer, paid Scout leaders bring groups of Scoutreach youth on reduced-price camping trips, providing what is for many a first-time wilderness experience.

The Pittsburgh council aims to involve an "appreciable" percentage of youth in each community, Mr. Surbaugh said. But for many reasons, some places have more Scouts than others.

In Mt. Lebanon, a suburb where 96.3 percent of the population is white and 3.5 percent lives below poverty level, 27.9 percent of eligible youth are involved in Cub Scouts, which is for boys in first through fifth grade. In Fox Chapel and Upper St. Clair, 25.2 percent and 29 percent of eligible Cubs are involved, respectively.

In communities targeted by Scoutreach, involvement varies widely. In Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood, where less than 6 percent of the population is white and about 40 percent lives below poverty level, 28.5 percent of eligible boys are involved in Cub Scouts, a high number perhaps due to relationships with the Hill House Association and the Centre Avenue YMCA, historic providers of social services.

But in McKees Rocks -- a mostly white, high-poverty community -- and Homewood -- a mostly black, high-poverty community -- that number falls to 15.3 percent. In Braddock, where 30.1 percent of the population is white and 35 percent lives below poverty level, just 10.8 percent of eligible Cub Scouts are enrolled.

"We are constantly raising money to support those programs," Mr. Surbaugh said. "Whereas in the suburbs ... it's more likely that the parents can raise enough money."

Beyond cost, there are several reasons why certain areas have fewer Scouts, Mr. Surbaugh said.

In particular, the Boy Scouts' volunteer structure impedes participation in low-income and minority communities, where many households are led by single parents and adults working multiple jobs.

Scoutreach, supported by paid adult leaders, helps correct that. But it is difficult to retain youth because in those same communities, families move often, Mr. Surbaugh said.

Buckling under pressure, Scout councils elsewhere have been accused at least twice of inflating membership rolls for minority and low-income youth, according to The Associated Press. In 2005, an internal audit found that the Atlanta Area Council had falsely registered nearly 5,000 boys in an "inner city" program. In 2006, after the Greater Alabama Council was investigated by the FBI, another internal audit found that several thousand registrations each year from 2002 to 2004 were questionable, most in a program for low-income youth.

The Pittsburgh council does not gather demographic information. Instead, it uses the percentage of involvement in a community to evaluate outreach.

Scout surveys show that most people have a basic understanding of the organization, Mr. Surbaugh said: "It's very gratifying... how many people don't say 'I guess they put on funny green shorts.' "

But Mr. Morris said that when he recruits, he still encounters initial resistance.

"When you say 'Boy Scouts,' there is a connotation visually that an urban teen doesn't identify with," said Ms. Schaller, the YouthPlaces director.

The children in Millvue Acres apparently cared little about image. As they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the boy chosen to hold a tiny flag beamed, placing his hand over his heart.

Persuading young children to join is simple, whether they live in Clairton or Upper St. Clair, Mr. Surbaugh said: Mention camping, bows and arrows, or canoes. The potential benefits of the program -- leadership, ambition, tenacity -- come from activities children inherently enjoy.

"The older the kids get, the more difficult it is for them to keep the kids engaged," said Melissa Strader, program director at the Manchester Youth Development Center, a group on Pittsburgh's North Side that collaborates with the Scouts.

Alexander Nichols of McCandless, a past member of the Scoutreach district committee, said he understands a teen's mindset: "Boy Scouts? That's nothing for no tough urban kid to do."

But Mr. Nichols fondly remembered a Scoutreach trip last year, when he accompanied a group to Camp Guyasuta, a Boy Scout facility in O'Hara and Sharpsburg. The boys felt a sense of accomplishment while camping, he said.

Mr. Nichols worked with one boy as they trekked through the woods.

"You realize, it's just you and me up here, and we've got to get back down," Mr. Nichols said.

You work together, he said.


Correction/Clarification: (Published 7/22/10) -- Boy Scout membership stands at about 3 million youths. An incorrect number was stated. Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413 .


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