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Beyond pup tents and prizewinning heifers

Why the Girl Scouts, 4-H, and other youth organizations are hittingrecord membership levels

Cookies and campfires.

That's what most people associate with Girl Scouts. But not Hanna Thomas.

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For her, Girl Scouts means making friends with Adlie penguins. It's about gathering ice samples in the desolate landscape of Antarctica.

Thanks to a partnership between Girl Scouts of America and the National Science Foundation, Hanna spent three months at McMurdo Station in Antarctica with a team of scientists. She helped with such diverse research projects as penguin ecology and ice-core analyzation to understand paleoclimates.

"In junior high and high school, science really died for me. But I stayed involved in it [through Girl Scouts]," says Hanna, now a geology major at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

Hanna's experience exemplifies the changing face of scouting, and why such youth organizations are booming.

Success springs from a diversity of programs, values that many parents embrace, and a new willingness to let the youngsters set the agenda.

Participation in Girl Scouts in the US is at a 26-year high. The Boy Scouts of America expect to have about 5 million members this year, that's about twice as many new members as compared with the 1970s. And 4-H, despite declining rural membership, is experiencing a resurgence.

Hanna attributes her long-term interest in scouting to the ability to delve into projects she couldn't get in school. "[With Girl Scouts] you could see a program from start to finish over a year. It's hard to get that in high school," she says.

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Girl Scouts was not seen as the "in" thing. "It was so decidedly uncool," says Hanna. But it fed her hunger for hands-on science.

The tie-in with the National Science Foundation is one way the Girl Scouts and other youth organizations are bolstering their appeal. There's an emphasis on offering a diversity of programs. And there's a concerted effort to reach out to ethnic minorities .

The Girl Scouts of America, for example, is working with the Texas Migrant Council Head Start program. Many migrants "thought the Girl Scouts only sold cookies," says Rafael Guerra, director of the council. The program works with low-income migrant children, serving about 6,000 girls up to the age of 5. Mr. Guerra says this is the only schooling some girls receive. When migrants move from south Texas to the Ohio River Valley, scout leaders are often waiting for their arrival.

And there are other outreach programs, such as a camp for unwed mothers and Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which provides girls whose mothers are incarcerated with role models and support.

Boy Scouts and scuba diving

The Boy Scouts are also shedding their old-school image. There were more than new 4.7 million members in 1998, plus 1.2 million adult volunteers.

New membership today is twice the annual rate of the '70s when it ebbed, in part due to anti-Vietnam sentiments in American society and a perception that the scouts espoused military values.

One way that the Boy Scouts have broadened their appeal is by going into the inner city and offering an alternative to gang membership through the Scout Reach program (see story, left).

The Boy Scouts have also started the Venturing Program, which allows young men and women to do anything from scuba dive off the coast of Honduras to fish off the coast of Africa. Trips are organized by group members, and an emphasis is placed on "ethical controversies," which help teach members how to make responsible choices.

4-H goes suburban

4-H, which stands for head, heart, hands, and health, began as a way to introduce nature study as a basis for a better agricultural education. But, in recent years, programs and membership have gone beyond the farm. You can still study animal husbandry, but there's also mining, aerospace, and even clowning.

This evolution has helped produce an explosion of new clubs, mostly in the inner cities. Asian membership, for example, has jumped 417 percent from 1976 to 1994 while the percentage of rural participants dropped 24 percent.

"Over the last 30 years we've found that the same philosophy of experiential learning ... applies equally to city kids as it does to rural kids. We've adapted some of our projects, you may not be able to raise a cow but you can raise a cavy [guinea pig] or a rabbit in an apartment," says Steve Mullen of the Louisiana 4-H youth-development program.

"The agriculture projects are means to an end," says Jeff Miller assistant director of 4-H Youth Development at North Dakota State University. "We still do a lot of that but in a different way."

4-H membership dipped below 5 million in the mid-1980s but has now rebounded to more than 6 million thanks to a renewed effort to give 4-H participants a larger role in running clubs.

"Kids were saying 'The No. 1 reason we left was we were tired of being in an organization run by adults." says Dick Sauer, president of the National 4-H Council.

The Girl Scouts fight a similar exodus, with most of its membership concentrated among the six- to eight-year-olds (Brownies). But girls in the 14- to 17-year-old range rose 4 percent last year. Hanna Thomas says a major factor influencing her decision to stay in scouting was her leader. She "acted more as a facilitator for our ideas than a generator."

Chris Lee, who now works in a West Oakland, Calif., 4-H after-school program tutoring youngsters, came up through the 4-H tutoring program. He says the responsiveness of the leadership to the kids helped open the door to travel and allowed him to "participate in events that I wouldn't normally get to participate in. Next month, Chris is headed to Washington, D.C., for a Youth 4-H leadership conference. He also has traveled, kids in tow, to various camps around California.

He says 4-H still has image problems. Many older students still associate it with more "traditional" farm projects.

"There's a long way to go to break down [stereotypes]," says Mr. Miller. "It's a tension that I feel every day."

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