Cecilia Sanchez never imagined she could lead a Girl Scout troop.
After all, Girl Scouts aren't common in her native Mexico most troops there are in large cities and thought to be only for the well-to-do.
Plus, wouldn't she have to speak English? Sanchez, a farmworker who lives in Ceres, speaks only Spanish.
Still, when her daughter came home from school with a note that said the Girl Scouts were looking for mothers to lead troops, Sanchez volunteered. She's now one of some 40 Spanish-speaking mothers who head Girl Scout troops in the region.
"At first, I was nervous," Sanchez said in Spanish. "It's a big responsibility. But my daughter begged me to do it."
The troops there are 16 in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties conduct meetings in Spanish. Sure, they sell cookies and make crafts. But they also learn about Latino culture through art, music, dance and the like. They perform community service and earn patches on educational topics such as asthma and H1N1 flu prevention.
It's part of what's called the Hispanic-Latino Initiative, a project launched three years ago by the local Girl Scout council, Girl Scouts Heart of Central California.
The idea, explained Girl Scout officials, is to attract more Spanish-speaking girls and adult volunteers.
The benefits: Girls get to see their Spanish-speaking moms in leadership positions and can better visualize themselves heading everything from Girl Scout troops to companies in the future.
"They're learning you can do anything if you try," Sanchez said.
Starting in 2004
The first Spanish-speaking Girl Scout troops here started in 2004 at the Oak Valley Family Support Network in Oakdale. The organization ran a support group in Spanish for mothers of toddlers, and saw a Girl Scout troop as another way to serve the area's Spanish-speaking families.
Soon, one troop became two, each with seven or eight girls and two Spanish-speaking leaders. The effort was so successful that, in 2007, the Girl Scout council officially launched its initiative, focused on recruiting and supporting Spanish-speaking leaders.
The council created two positions for Spanish- speaking staff to run the program. The director, Debbie Miller, developed a new patch the Dolores Huerta Interest Project for which girls learn about issues related to farmworkers, women and immigrants.
The staff also hands out Spanish-language Girl Scout materials everything from handbooks to notes home to parents.
This makes sense, Miller said, because the area's Latino population is substantial. In 2008, nearly 40 percent of Stanislaus County residents were Latino, according to Census Bureau figures.
"Forty years from now, an even bigger percentage of girls will be Hispanic," she said. "We're expanding the opportunities for more girls to become Girl Scouts."
On the 'cutting edge'
Miller believes the Heart of Central California council is on the "cutting edge" nationwide with its Hispanic-Latino Initiative. At a Girl Scout conference a few years ago, she could find no other councils doing such a program. In the years since, she's read reports on a few efforts to engage the Latino community, but those have been solely through paid Girl Scout staff, not recruiting volunteer adult troop leaders.
"There was no model for this, we created one," she said. "We created this community-organizing model, which involved a lot of going to people's homes, creating trust, doing training and one-on-one mentoring."
Girl Scouts USA recognized the Heart of Central California program in its 2009 Report on Promising Practices for Hispanic Membership Growth.
Today, some 225 girls take part in Spanish-speaking troops in Oakdale, Ceres, Delhi, Modesto, Hughson, Salida, Turlock and Tracy.
Often, meetings are held at schools, parks or community centers. Sanchez's Troop 3876 meets outdoors at a migrant worker camp in Ceres, where she lives with her husband and three children.
At a recent meeting, her Girl Scouts gathered around tables, carefully arranging broken pieces of eggshells into mosaics.
One Brownie made a picture of a watermelon (its colors, she explained, represent the Mexican flag), another made a monarch butterfly (this species travels to Mexico each year), and another made a mask (which, she explained, is traditionally used in Mexican festivals).
Outings are special
The girls, who all speak English, described what they like about their troop.
"We help others," said 8-year-old Fatima Sanchez, Cecilia's daughter, explaining that the Scouts knitted scarves to give to people in nursing homes.
"We've been on field trips," said Alejandra Esparza, 11. The girls toured California State University, Stanislaus. They went to Funworks. They've even been to day camp.
These things may be old hat for other troops. But for the area's Spanish-speaking troops many Scouts are children of fieldworkers the outings are extra special, said Zenaida Sanchez, an assistant with the program.
"They've never been to these places before," she said. "One of our girls, at the end of her day at Funworks, said, 'Oh, I feel like I went to Disneyland.' "
Increasingly, the troops within the Hispanic-Latino Initiative are getting involved in programs and events in which they interact with English- speaking troops. The best example, Miller said, was a "dime-a-taste" event for World Thinking Day in which troops made foods representative of countries around the globe, and the Scouts and their families made the rounds buying samples for 10 cents a taste.
"That was our first really, really great partnership with other troops," she said. "We thought that for the first year, if we could just get our troops to go, that would be great, but we immediately had three troop leaders say, 'No, no, we want to do food booths, too.' "
Cecilia Sanchez's troop made tamales, which may have been the most popular dish at the dime-a-taste, Miller said, and all the Spanish-speaking troops that attended said they want to fully participate next year.
"The organizers were very welcoming and excited to have them there," she said, "and the girls were excited to taste all the different foods and know they were raising money for Haiti (earthquake relief)."
Still, there are challenges. Because Girl Scouts aren't common in Mexico, some
of the girls' parents particularly the fathers were leery of the organization, Sanchez said. They didn't want their girls going to other people's houses, especially if they weren't there.
So, the dads came along. When Troop 3876 held its first meeting in Cecilia Sanchez's carport, a cluster of fathers gathered on the sidewalk. "It was one big circle of dads," she said.
Dads join in
These days, fathers don't just watch, they join in. Dads carried in the vats of tamales at the dime-a-taste. They attend ceremonies and award nights to cheer on their girls.
"They are so proud," said Sanchez, the troop leader. She is proud, too. It's not easy for her to hold troop meetings after a full day of picking cherries or other crops in the hot sun.
But she says it's worth it when she sees a girl get excited about something, such as the troop's recent trip to CSU, Stanislaus.
"My goal is to get the girls enjoying the program," she said, "to be confident. That's what I want for all my girls, to be leaders."
For more information on Girl Scout troops, Spanish- speaking or otherwise, go to www.girlscoutshcc.org or call 522-9001.
Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2358.