COLUMBIA — Alejandra Abad likes to read fairy tales, dance along to her favorite artist, Selena Gomez, and practice cheerleading.
But every Sunday after the Spanish Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alejandra, 9, joins a handful of boys bouncing around the courtyard outside. Wearing neckerchiefs and navy shirts, these Cub Scouts eagerly await their weekly meeting.
Although Alejandra’s brother Luis is a Cub Scout, she doesn’t attend the meetings to observe like the other sisters. She is the lone female member of Pack 121. She's a girl in a Cub Scout pack.
“Technically, I’ve signed up Alejandra in the BSA Learning for Life program,” Cubmaster John Stansfield said. Sacred Heart, the pack’s charter organization, does not offer Girl Scouts.
According to John Fabsits, Boy Scouts of America director of development and marketing, Learning for Life is a coed character-building program.
Out of 27 Columbia Cub Scout packs and hundreds of children involved, Alejandra is the only girl participating in any Scout activity.
She participates in all of the events and attends regular meetings like the rest of the Scouts.
“She was out there with her earrings and headband, and nobody gave her a second look,” Stansfield said. He described Alejandra’s involvement in Pack 121 as welcomed by fellow packs, too.
The national Hispanic Initiative
Noticing the growing population, the Great Rivers Council in Columbia decided to designate Pack 121 as a Hispanic pack — the city’s first.
Nationally, the Boy Scouts of America formed its Hispanic Initiative in 2007 in response to the growing Hispanic population. The goals are to engage the Hispanic community and encourage more Latino youth membership, executives and volunteers.
After roughly six weeks of recruiting outside Spanish Mass, Stansfield was able to put together a group of eight participants.
The outcome was successful enough to create the pack, but it is significantly smaller than his past group, which included more than 80 boys.
Stansfield recalled the difference between Boy Scouts 10 years ago, when his two sons were involved, and today. The organization has lower numbers even as the population of eligible youth has risen.
“What changed are the demographics of America's youth,” he said. “Hispanics are now more than 20 percent of this age group, but they account for only about 3 percent of BSA members.”
After attending Spanish Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church for six months, Stansfield said he has learned that the Hispanic culture is family-centered, more so than the Anglo culture that dominated his Boy Scout troops for the past decade.
Stansfield and his wife, Julie, began researching ways to start a girls program, and they ultimately decided to open Pack 121 to both genders.
Pointing to a large patch on her uniform, Alejandra said with a smile, “My favorite is when we go on Cub rallies.”
At a rally she attended in September, the pack learned how to fish, shoot pistols and use a bow and arrow.
The girl's mother, Rita Abad, said her daughter is always eager to do new things.
Alejandra’s brother is also a member of Pack 121. Both siblings are Webelos, fourth- and fifth-grade Scouts. Stansfield is happy with the opportunity to have a brother and sister in his pack; he thinks it brings them closer together and honors the Hispanic family-centered culture.
“If I am going to successfully recruit members to Pack 121, I have to offer an opportunity for the whole family, not just the sons,” he said.
The Abads moved to Columbia from Ecuador five months ago when their father came to MU to earn his doctorate. The family learned about Pack 121 through Sacred Heart and was interested right away.
“It helps to not forget your first language and customs," Rita Abad said. "Like you’re a little bit at home.”
She also admires how quickly the Cub Scouts help her children learn new things; neither knew any English before arriving in the United States in August. Now they can carry on a conversation.
Scout troop traditions
Pack 121 might be unusual in Columbia from a demographic standpoint, but it functions no differently than any other troop.
Meetings are filled with learning activities, projects and new experiences. Although at times it’s hard to make a flexible program for children of varying ages, Stansfield manages to keep his troop engaged.
The Cub Scouts begin by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. One meeting was devoted to the American flag, and Scouts learned how to fold the flag and why it's important to keep it off the ground.
The following week, Stansfield, fully accessorized with his official campaign hat, arrived with a homemade trebuchet (a classic catapult) and several blocks of wood to make bootjacks.
While some Scouts hammered away at wood blocks, others played their own version of basketball in which the trebuchet launched a small ball into a basket.
Later, when Julie Stansfield demonstrated experiments with sodium acetate, the group was captivated by the chemical reactions.
While instilling the values of Scouting and building character, Stansfield said he enjoys letting his pack have fun in a structured environment.
"The secret is to keep it simple and make it fun because you never know what you’re going to get with kids."