LAWRENCE -- Charles Boddy thought they got it. He believed the Spanish-speaking ministers sitting before him embraced his message: that membership in the Boy Scouts would be great for Latino youths. But as he left the church that day, one minister approached him with a simple question.
"What's a Scout?"
The Boy Scouts of America -- even with its declining enrollment and controversial stance on banning gay scoutmasters -- is an iconic national institution dating to 1910. But as Boddy, a bilingual scouting volunteer, has learned in the two years since the Scouts launched a recruiting campaign in Lawrence, "Los Boy Scouts" does not always translate in Latino communities. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the Scouts, many Latino families see the organization as an "Anglo" club.
But with national enrollment down nearly 10 percent since 1998, the Boy Scouts are now reaching out to a community long overlooked, if not ignored, and retooling their marketing strategies to target the nation's largest and fastest growing minority: Latinos. Handbooks, advertisements, and even bumper stickers have been translated into Spanish. And though the organization is predominantly white, the Scouts are getting creative by offering soccer programs to children of immigrants from Central and South America who other wise might not think about camping, hiking, or knot-tying.
The Scouts say they have no reliable national data just yet to show how this effort is going. But in Framingham, Lawrence, and other communities, the results are obvious. The Scout council in Framingham has enrolled more than 150 children, most of them Brazilian, in a year-round soccer program. In Lawrence, enrollment in traditional programs has almost quadrupled.
In the last two years in this mostly Latino community, membership in scouting programs has gone from 53 to 250, primarily due to efforts, like Boddy's, to reach Spanish-speaking families. And where there were once just three Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops, there are now nine, including the newly reconstituted Troop 2, where the leaders and the children are all Latino.
"We're going to start learning the Scout law and oath to get you guys prepared to be a Boy Scout in a uniform," scoutmaster Jose Nunez said last Wednesday at a Troop 2 meeting inside a hot gymnasium in Lawrence. "This over here," Nunez said, placing his hand on his uniform, "is an honor to have."
At least some families agree.
"We know the Boy Scouts are considered something big here in the US," said Endry Martinez, a 20-year-old Dominican woman who drove her younger brothers, Kedwin and Edwin Salazar, to a recent Troop 2 meeting. "So we figured, since we're American, it was a good idea to join."
Not everyone feels the same way. Boy Scout enrollment, which peaked in the early 1970s, has been stagnant or declining for years as children have grown busier, video games have replaced outdoor activities, and the Scouts have taken stands upsetting some liberals. Since 1998 alone, Boy Scout membership has fallen 9.8 percent, from 1,023,442 to 922,836, and Cub Scout membership has dropped 21.6 percent, from 2.1 million to 1.7 million, according to Scout statistics.
Tico Perez, a Cuban-American member of the Scouts' national executive board and national Hispanic task force, said the decline in numbers did not directly lead to the decision to recruit more Latinos. But it was clear, he said, that the Scouts needed to do a better job in reaching these Hispanic families.
Traditionally, Perez said, children join the Scouts by one of a few routes. Membership gets passed on from father to son. Friends recruit one another -- a powerful strategy that Perez calls "boy to boy." And thirdly, scoutmasters visit schools to recruit.
But what has worked historically with Anglo kids, Perez said, has not worked with Latinos. Parents often have no ties to the Scouts. A Hispanic boy who has no friends in the Scouts is not likely to be recruited by a friend. And while visits to schools may have piqued the interest of Hispanic boys, parents rarely followed up for a simple reason: the language barrier.
"All the presentations were fully in English," said Perez. "All the literature was fully in English. And if you don't know who we are to begin with, you're certainly not going to come to a meeting to learn more about us."
Locally, communities with growing minority populations have felt the impact of this cultural disconnect. In Framingham, the Scouts had trouble recruiting Brazilian-American children before 2006 when they introduced Soccer and Scouting, a national program that has signed up more than 15,000 youngsters nationwide. In Somerville, Boy Scout Troop 15 shut down last fall, unable to communicate with a growing Spanish-speaking population. And in Lawrence, where 67 percent of residents speak Spanish at home, the Scouts struggled to get even 1 percent of children to join in 2003 -- the lowest penetration rate of 51 other northern suburban communities. "The numbers were very powerful," said Randy Larson, the Scout executive at the Haverhill-based Yankee Clipper Council that oversees scouting in the northern suburbs. "We just had to make some changes to our approach to scouting in Lawrence."
At first, Boddy, the bilingual city attorney of Lawrence who attained the rank of Eagle Scout in 1978, was skeptical. "I've heard that lip service before," he said.
But this time was different. Boddy spoke with Lawrence's Spanish-speaking ministers. The Scouts got permission to visit churches and hand out information on Sundays. They set up a booth at Semana Hispana, an annual Hispanic festival in Lawrence, hired two Spanish-speaking employees, and persuaded Puerto Rican Scout volunteers like Felix Soto, who lives in Wayland, to train parents to become volunteers themselves. "A lot of people don't understand the program. Some people think it's a paramilitary group," said Soto. "That's why I say we have to go to the community and talk to them."
The work has made Soto, an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 173 at Hanscom Air Force Base, something of a local Latino scouting guru. Next month, when the Somerville Scouts hope to revive Troop 15, they plan to follow the Lawrence model and bring in Soto to help out. Meanwhile, families near Lawrence are discovering the Scouts and enrolling their children.
"You've got to keep them busy," said Freddy Tavarez, a Dominican man and Andover resident who until recently had never heard of the Scouts. But this summer, Tavarez learned about the organization at his church, St. Mary of the Assumption in Lawrence. He signed up his sons, Narfred, 14, and Fred, 12, figuring it would be good for them, and on a recent afternoon he dropped them off at the church for their first-ever camping trip.
In the shade, five new Scouts were soon discussing what they had packed for the weekend.
"I brought marshmallows," Edwin Salazar announced.
"You're smart," Fred Tavarez said. "Big ones or small ones?"
"Big ones," Salazar replied.
"Sick," his new friend said.
Tavarez, half Ecuadoran, half Dominican, was speaking American slang and it required no translation. Marshmallows -- in pretty much any language -- are cool.
Keith O'Brien can be reached at email@example.com.