Scout colors instead of gang colors

"A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind...."

arbed in tan uniform shirts and bright, African-inspired patterned neckerchiefs, the Boy Scouts earnestly recite the Scout Law at a recent weekly meeting here in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. They would make perfect subjects for a Norman Rockwell painting.

But for Pasadena's Troop 40, this is more than the stuff of magazine-cover nostalgia.

The honoring of Bryan Hart, the troop's first Eagle Scout last month, marks a milestone. For the scouts, their parents, their leaders, and the city of Pasadena, Bryan's achievement and the newfound success of a Boy Scout troop in this predominantly African-American neighborhood signals a victory in the struggle to keep the community's sons from falling prey to gangs and gang violence.

"One of the major problems boys face today, especially in urban areas," says Michael Messner, associate professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, "is danger from other boys."

Since 1992, the Boy Scouts of America has run the Scout Reach program to bring scouting to so-called "hard to serve" inner city, ethnic, and rural areas across the country, says De Tan Nguyen, Scout Reach's associate national director at BSA headquarters in Irving, Texas.

Scout Reach also provides bilingual training materials and has helped established troops for, among others, kids in Portuguese-speaking neighborhoods of Providence, R. I., and Hmong communities in St. Paul/Minneapolis.

Establishing a troop in northwest Pasadena had been considered for some time. But it was citywide outrage at the 1993 Halloween-night gang slayings of three young trick-or-treaters - none was involved in gangs - that galvanized a coalition of agencies, including the Pasadena Police and Fire Departments, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and others.

The group had to tackle the same barriers that can keep a troop anywhere from getting off the ground, says Ron Schoenmehl, the San Gabriel Council's finance director: lack of adequate finances, lack of adult leadership and lack of peer or cultural understanding of the program.

Initial financial support from private sources - during the first year, for example, scouts were offered scholarships to summer camp in exchange for keeping a promise to their scoutmaster to do something that would make them a better scout, like improving their behavior at school. Other scout troops helped out with spare camping equipment. By its second year, Troop 40 had made it clear it wanted to be self-sufficient and organized its own fund-raising efforts.

As for leadership, "we find that moms and dads are willing, but multiple jobs, other kids at home, and fear of not knowing the program make it difficult [for them] to become leaders," says Mr. Schoenmehl. So, to take some of the initial pressure off parents, the coalition asked the church, as Troop 40's chartering organization, to find appropriate candidates. Volunteers from the community, particularly from the church's own men's group, came forward.

"We started this troop because the at-risk element in this community is large," says Andrew Oliver, a church member, whose son is a member of the troop. "We had an opportunity to put a different color on the street."

But to make Boy Scout tan and green more appealing than gang colors to neighborhood kids, Mr. Oliver and others say, it was important to understand that "at risk" meant more than the danger of a life wasted in crime or lost to gang violence. It also meant that even "good" kids were potential victims of unstructured spare time - hanging out, boredom, lack of direction and cynicism.

Bryan Hart, already a Life Scout when he transferred in from another troop, found himself doing a lot of persuading. "When it started [some] kids were there because their parents told them."

The first trips to Camp Cherry Valley on Catalina Island where they met other scouts made the difference to many of the newcomers, Hart says. But, he cautions, "You can't just join and expect to see results immediately.... You have to give it time."

Yet when the sense of personal accomplishment scouting offers catches on, it can be a powerful motivator. On the most recent camping trip, says Scout Master Ted Few, 17 members of the troop earned more than 100 merit badges among them. "That," he says proudly, "isn't hanging out."

Troop 40's success has generated such interest in scouting that the First African Methodist Episcopal Church has formed a Cub Scout den and Latino youngsters, drawn from nearby neighborhoods, are joining what had initially been an all African-American troop. Pasadena police officers drop by to visit during troop meetings - with the additional benefit of bringing the police and the community closer together.

And the troop is producing its own next generation of leadership. "Now that I've made it I want to show the rest of the kids," says Bryan, now a freshman at California State University, Long Beach. "I've had so much fun I want to give [them] the same experiences I've had.... Ultimately, I would love to come back as scout master."

If there's a lesson for others in Pasadena's experience, says Janet Pope of the Pasadena Police, who has worked with the troop from the beginning, it's that "somewhere else there's a Troop 40 - or the need for one. I think it would behoove any community to look around and see how they could help."

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