Preparing for Life
Latino parents eagerly pursue programs that ensure their children will be ready to compete in tomorrow’s workforce. From sports to spelling bees, these activities help develop valuable skills. But more and more Latinos are now looking to an organization with more than 100 years of experience, nearly 2.3 million youth members, and a slogan that says “Prepared. For Life. ®/Preparados para el futuro.®” That organization is the Boy Scouts of America.
As the story goes, American newspaperman W. D. Boyce became inspired to start the BSA after a positive experience with a British Scout in London. While crossing the street, Boyce asked the Scout for directions. The boy would not accept Boyce’s tip, saying it was his duty as a Scout, and Boyce was beyond impressed. When he returned to the United States, he set about starting Scouting in America with a mission that still stands—preparing young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law.
The highest-ranking Latino volunteer, BSA National Commissioner Tico Perez, began Scouting at age 13. As a son of a Cuban immigrant, he says there was no Scouting legacy in his family. “I did notice the neighborhood boys who were involved seemed to be having fun doing things I liked to do, like hiking, backpacking, and canoeing, and they asked me to join. It changed my life,” Perez said. He quickly set his sights on attaining the rank of Eagle Scout, earning Scouting’s highest rank within two years.
A commitment to Scouting can lead to more than merit badges—it can pay dividends for Latino students applying for college. “When a college sees you’re a Boy Scout, your application goes to the front of the line,” asserted José Niño, BSA National Executive Board member. “If they see you are an Eagle Scout, you increase your chances of getting selected and maybe even get a scholarship of some kind. Being a Scout means you’re a leader, you’re trainable, and you know how to set and accomplish goals. It means you’ve learned skills and have had experiences that will help get things done. They [colleges and employers] seek these traits in potential new hires. It’s an advantage over others.”
The modern BSA has opened its doors to girls through the Venturing and Exploring programs and its initiatives in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). For Paola Rosas, being married to an Eagle Scout meant that getting her sons involved in Scouting was a given, but for her daughter, who has been a Venturer for the last two years, the experience has been transformative. “I can really see how she’s gained confidence and come out of her shell,” she shared. “Scouting has the tools to confirm the values that we’re already teaching our children. We help them at home, but Scouting can take them to a different level.”
The BSA is constantly working to grow the number of Latino Scouts. These efforts come under the purview of Ponce Duran, the BSA’s Southern Region director and chief diversity officer. “We are focused on creating a culture of diversity both internally and externally toward the communities we serve. Scouting will continue to be a valuable and relevant program because of our diverse staff, volunteer leadership, and membership. We are investing heavily in cultivating those efforts going forward.
“The BSA Latino outreach has evolved over time, beginning in the 1970s with the Siempre Juntos campaign,” Duran shared. “We’ve launched training conferences like the Spanish-language Wood Badge training course specifically for volunteers, designed and developed in-language recruitment campaigns, training curriculums, and program resources, recruited Latino community leaders to better represent our communities and to provide leadership on our boards, including Ralph de la Vega from AT&T. Today, the BSA has adopted diversity as a national policy to channel resources to support efforts by councils nationwide.”
One of the top-ranked Latinos in corporate America, Ralph de la Vega is the president and CEO of AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions. He sits on the National Executive Board and chairs the BSA’s All-Markets Strategy, which reaches out to the Latino community. In addition to Niño, other Latinos on the committee include advertising pioneer Ernest Bromley and entrepreneur Frank Ramirez. A native of Cuba, de la Vega lived in Miami and was deeply impressed with how the Boy Scouts there turned around the lives of disadvantaged youth. “I saw them being transformed. I saw them go from troubled youth to Eagle Scouts. Boy Scouts develop values and leadership skills that last for the rest of their lives.”
De la Vega notes that the BSA is important to AT&T because, while a global company, AT&T helps local communities thrive. And providing young Latinos with lasting values and leadership skills will help them in their careers, whatever they choose to do. “We can’t put a price on that,” said de la Vega. “It’s priceless. And it affects future generations as well.” As proof, de la Vega cites the statistic that of the 12 men who walked on the moon, 11 were Scouts. Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and CEO, also sits on the National Executive Board.
Recruiting more Latinos to volunteer for the BSA is a priority for de la Vega. “It’s a great opportunity to get engaged in your community and make a dramatic change in a young person’s life.” Though a busy executive, de la Vega takes the time on weekends to teach a class needed to obtain a merit badge in sustainability, for which Scouts design a sustainable city. “They were so excited!” he recalled proudly. For his commitment to provide youth with opportunities, de la Vega received the Silver Buffalo Award, the BSA’s highest honor for distinguished service to youth.
But according to Latino leaders like Niño and Perez, there are some obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve diversity. For many Latino families, the concern is that participating in Scouting is too expensive. But while annual membership dues are $24, no family is turned away because of finances. “We have scholarship programs and ways of supplying the resources for every Scout, no matter what his needs,” asserted Marilyn Lopez, district director with the BSA.“We leave no child behind; we’re going to do what we can to reach out to every child.”
“Our families sometimes work two and three jobs, so it’s hard to participate as a volunteer, and it makes them uncomfortable if they can’t comply,” added Perez.
But he said that for parents who choose to involve their child in Scouting, it may be the single most important decision they make because it can have a life-changing effect.
Ramirez, who also sits on the BSA’s National Executive Board, joined Scouting as a youth after a neighbor, who happened to be a troop leader, approached his father about it. “My dad hesitated because he said we couldn’t afford it, but our neighbor said don’t worry about that; he had extra equipment and uniforms that I could use and that the troop would help with expenses.”
At age 15, Ramirez’s life changed overnight when his father passed away and he suddenly became responsible for his mother, who was blind, and his siblings. But before he died, his father made him promise to become an Eagle Scout. Ramirez fulfilled his father’s final request and took it a step further, earning honors in school and successfully competing in a speech competition that landed him in New York City to deliver an address on Scouting. At breakfast the morning after his speech, a BSA representative approached him, inquiring about his goals and college plans. Ramirez admitted that he’d like to be a lawyer but that he had made no plans for college. His high school counselors had not prepared him, deciding that as the head of the household, he should work after high school to support his family rather than go to college.
“When I returned home, I was summoned to speak to my counselors, who had me fill out the necessary forms to take college entrance tests and for admissions,” he said. “In the end, I received offers from Harvard and Stanford. That chance meeting, that never would have happened without Scouting, led me in a completely different direction. It changed my life.”
The BSA has conducted surveys to see how best to appeal to Latino families. One study revealed that Latinos prefer to participate as a family rather than individually. Local troops have responded by inviting whole families to come to Scouting activities. “The great thing about Scouting is that we give people the opportunity to be with their children, to be in the woods and talk about God and nature,” offered Perez. “It slows down the clock, gets families away from the TV, so they can sit at a fire and just talk and spend time together.” In the 1990s, the BSA began efforts to translate Scouting materials into Spanish and to offer bilingual training and recruiting for troop leaders and staff.
While the national headquarters of the BSA is in Irving, Texas, the organization is made up of local councils that deliver the Scouting program to the communities they serve. Councils rely on local community leaders and volunteers to help raise the opportunity for Scouting and necessary resources. More than 100,000 Scouting units are owned and operated by chartered organizations. Of these, approximately 70 percent are chartered to faith-based organizations, 22 percent are chartered to civic organizations, and nearly 8 percent are chartered to educational organizations.
A former Scout himself, Niño began his history of volunteerism with the BSA in 1998. As a founding member of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), he was approached by BSA representatives who asked if they could participate in the chamber’s annual convention to encourage Latinos to volunteer as troop leaders and local board members.
“Because I was a Boy Scout, I wanted to give back to the organization. Not only did I welcome the BSA, I personally covered their registration and set up two tables for them in our exhibition hall to distribute their information,” Niño shared. After a few years of providing this support to the BSA, Niño was invited to serve on the National Executive Board, which he has done since 1998.
As one of the first Latinos to serve on the national board, Niño viewed the opportunity as a way to actively engage more Latino community leaders in the development of young people. He was appointed chairman for Urban Scouting, which he later dubbed “Scoutreach,” and has served on multiple committees. He helped develop Scouting leadership training programs and initiated efforts to translate Scouting literature into Spanish. Tony Jimenez, who serves as vice president of communications and marketing for the National Capital Area Council in Washington, D.C., is one of many volunteers Niño has recruited.
A former Scout, Jimenez is the founder and CEO of MicroTech, an IT and network support services company. He says he chose to volunteer six months ago because “I just wanted to give back. I enjoyed my time as a Scout and remembered fondly the years I spent Scouting.” Involved in the technology field, Jimenez said he is excited by the BSA’s STEM programs and hopes that Latinos will take full advantage of them. “STEM will make us a better connected society,” he said. “People who excel in STEM have increased opportunities, and we want to provide that for young Latinos and Latinas.”
Some of the earliest Scouting awards were merit badges for subjects like chemistry and astronomy, but in recent years, the BSA has ramped up efforts to encourage STEM education among boys and girls through two programs—STEM Scouts and the Nova Awards.
Open to boys and girls, the STEM Scouts program will launch this fall. Piloted by 12 councils across the country, the coed program aims to provide a new way to learn about STEM outside of the classroom with the goal of establishing a long-term interest in these rapidly growing fields. Available to elementary, middle, and high school students, STEM Scouts groups meet weekly after school for four to six weeks with STEM professionals in a variety of fields. Hands-on activities may include conducting experiments that could lead to new inventions, technologies, machines, and medicines. STEM Scouts at the high school level have the opportunity to have their work reviewed by scientists and engineers and then published, helping to increase their chances for college scholarships and program admissions.
“STEM can be pretty intimidating,” admitted Jimenez. “People assume that you have to be a straight-A student or great in math, but in reality, we rely on technology and use it every day. It’s a part of everyone’s life. So for Latinos in particular, understanding that they don’t have to be afraid of it by using it is one way to get them involved.”
The Nova Awards encourage Scouts and Venturers (boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 20 who are members of the BSA’s Venturing program) to take on activities in any or all STEM fields. Participants receive an award by completing a set of prescribed activities. More ambitious youth may opt to earn the Supernova Award, which presents more rigorous requirements. Different Supernova levels are named after noted trailblazers such as Thomas Edison, and the award culminates with the Dr. Albert Einstein Supernova Award.
Additionally, national conferences like that of Scouting’s Order of the Arrow take place on college campuses, exposing Scouts to a college setting—some for the first time. More than 15,000 Scouts attended the National OA Conference held at Michigan State University this year.
“What Scouting did for me and what it does for many young people and families who have no American-centric legacy is to provide a bridge to social equity, a means by which socio-economic wealth is actually grown and transferred,” asserted Ramirez. “Scouting provided the ability to purchase social equity by working hard and by remaining true to the 12 points of the Scout Law.”
For parents who are still on the fence, Duran added: “When you look at all the data and see the impact on family and careers that Scouting can have on a young person, it’s unbelievable. If they stay five years or more, they’re likely to go to college, earn more money, and volunteer in their communities.” And once a Scout, always a Scout.
There are many rewarding ways to get involved in Scouting as a youth member or adult volunteer giving back to your community. Find out how at BeAScout.org.
By Valerie Menard
Ralph de la Vega