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Molly Born/MEDILL

Jasmine VanSomeren, 7, is a Brownie Girl Scout with Troop 20213 in Old Irving Park.

More than cookies: Girl Scouts amp up resources to serve changing demographics

by Molly Born
March 08, 2011

Molly Born/MEDILL

For the Acevedo family, Girl Scout season lasted longer than a cookie drive -- it has marked a lifetime.

National Board member Sylvia Acevedo said growing up as a Brownie scout in a Spanish-speaking household in Las Cruces, N.M., she witnessed her mother’s challenge with language and American culture.

“I really got into Girl Scouts and my mother saw my enthusiasm,” Acevedo said. “At the time, my mother didn’t speak much English at all.”

But when her mom began bringing homemade food to Sylvia’s meetings and spending time with group leaders, it wasn’t long before they embraced her and took her under their wing, Acevedo said.

Then something happened that would both transform and inform her mother’s life.

“My troop leaders helped my mother learn English and they helped her take her citizenship test,” Acevedo said.

Her mom later formed a troop for Laura, Sylvia’s sister, at Laura’s special-needs school. Before Laura died of breast cancer at age 43, she told Sylvia the hallmarks of her life included holding down a job and speed skating in the International Special Olympics.

“And then she told me she was proudest to be a Girl Scout,” Acevedo said.

Numbers show overall upward trend for Hispanics

As the Girls Scouts of the USA approaches its 100-year anniversary in 2012, leaders said that kind of attention to a diverse membership has been a major goal.

The demographic trends that show minority populations are on the rise nationwide and in Chicago are mirrored by the organization’s shift in membership scout, officials said.

"Like most youth-serving organizations, we have seen a decline [in membership], said national spokeswoman Michelle Tompkins. “[But] it is going up in two areas – Hispanic membership and recent immigrants.”

There were about 27,400 Hispanic girl members nationwide last year, a 22 percent increase since 2003. Hispanic adult members, mostly volunteers, numbered 48,400 in 2010, a 36 percent increase in the same period.

Overall there are 2.3 million girl members and 880,000 adults.

The Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana recorded Hispanic girl membership at about 18 percent last year. The area councils make up the country’s largest Girl Scout network, comprising about 85,700 girl members in six Illinois counties and four Indiana counties. While that membership is down slightly from 2009 levels due to program restructuring, CEO Maria Wynne said it is expected to increase.

“We’re looking at shifting demographics and we’re looking at the diversity of the kids that are coming through,” Wynne said

Current efforts

In the past few years, the national Girls Scouts organization has amped efforts to serve the Hispanic population, by launching a Spanish-language version of its website and reaching out through targeted marketing, Tompkins said.

Being Latina herself, Wynne said she understands that establishing rapport with a community is key to reaching girls from Hispanic households, especially in the Chicago area.

“I truly understand the need to come into a community with a trust that allows the Hispanic family to allow her girl to be a part of the organization,” Wynne said.

A bilingual staff is paid to go into Spanish-speaking communities and tell what the group is all about. The ultimate goal, Wynne said, is to address potential misconceptions, raise awareness and build that trust with community leaders.

And even language can create inherent challenges. Tropa in Spanish refers to military organizations, so explaining the Girl Scout mission in their language is critical, Wynne said.

Looking forward

Wynne said the Chicago area anticipates a further growth in Hispanic girl members in the coming years.

“We know that we’re going to see a substantial expansion of Hispanics,” Wynne said. “Our next evolution on our website, once we get the funding necessary to support that, is to have a website in Spanish.”

To celebrate its centennial, local Girl Scouts will host the World Forum in July 2012 in Chicago. The workshops will welcome 700 Girls Scouts and Girl Guides – as they’re called overseas – from around the world to discuss global issues, such as poverty, gender equity and environmental sustainability.

“That’s just another visible demonstration of how much this organization is really aware of global exchange and recognizes that that’s an important part of development for a girl today,” Wynne said.

Meanwhile, only three out of every 100 Boy Scouts identified as Hispanic in 2009, according to published reports. Chicago Boy Scouts launched the Hispanic Initiatives Program to reach out to Hispanic boys and their families in spring of 2009.