URBAN SCOUTS GO ALL OUT; Thriving Programs Are Impacting Kids' Lives, Behavior and Self-Esteem

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

Christina Kim can remember everything about her first horseback riding trip: the black-and-white paint horse named Cheyenne. How slow Cheyenne went at first, until a truck roared past and spooked her. How scared she felt, and then how exhilarated.

Sure, there are plenty of other things the 12-year-old loves about Girl Scouts. But at the mention of the trail ride months ago, her face lights up.

The arts and crafts, the movie nights, the outdoor outings and the volunteer work all make Christina's troop at the Sulzbacher Center like any other.

That's exactly the idea.

Far from the suburban idyll that Scouting is sometimes associated with, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops are flourishing in Jacksonville's subsidized apartments, urban churches and even homeless shelters.

Scouting is reaching kids who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to be a part of it through two outreach programs that focus on urban and underserved communities. The programs are known in North Florida as the Girl Scouts' Niamoja service unit and the Boy Scouts' Mohawk District. Active groups are present in vibrant churches such as Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, in the Community Connections shelter and in some violence-plagued communities, such as Eureka Garden. At the Sulzbacher Center, staff proudly say the Boy Scouts in their troop have an average grade point average of 3.1.

They foster a throwback to old-fashioned ideals of teamwork, responsibility and community service. But they also provide an oasis from all-too-modern problems, helping kids improve their school grades and build their self-esteem.

"Everyone's finding out that there's more to Girl Scouts than they thought," said Davetta Williams, who helps coordinate the Niamoja program.

Willie Williams, 18, doesn't listen to peers who might poke fun at his lifelong involvement with Boy Scouts. Instead, he likes to tell them about the benefits, like the service projects or campouts.

"There's so much you can do," he said, pointing to a 2009 trip that he says was the highlight of his 11 years in Scouting: going to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Troop leaders say Williams, who recently completed his Eagle Scout project, is a role model for the 40 younger boys that compose the Cub Scout pack and Boy Scout troop at Shiloh, where the program has grown in the last few years.

Gene Dillard, a longtime Boy Scout volunteer, said he often sees a transformation, especially in boys who struggle in school or have difficult home lives.

"I've seen the kids come in, they won't say anything the first day," he said. "By the time they get involved, you can't shut them up."

Both groups still make sure to get the kids outdoors, although the Boy Scouts focus more on camping. Mostly, it's about introducing them to new and positive activities. Some of the girls have never been to the beach despite being raised in Jacksonville, said Nancy White, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts Gateway Council.

Once over the initial skepticism, organizers of the urban Scouting efforts have found an almost-startling enthusiasm from parents.

Girl Scouts was something that Brittany Price never got to do, but she encouraged her daughter, 8-year-old Kiara Goodman, to join the Sulzbacher Center's troop.

Since then, Price said, Kiara has been doing better in school, in her behavior and grades. …