By Amanda Dyslin firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — MANKATO — Frank Samlaska grew up in Fairmont in the 1960s and '70s, having been exposed to very little diversity until attending St. Cloud State University.
All these years later in Mankato, he's watched as the community's non-white population has exploded. And having served for decades in various leadership roles through Boy Scouts of America Twin Valley Council, it dawned on him: “We need to be more proactive in seeking out these fellow Americans,” said Samlaska, vice president of membership.
“We weren't being aggressive enough in that regard,” Samlaska said. “A lightbulb went on. We're missing the boat here.”
Since then, efforts have been greatly increased to recruit various underrepresented populations — including Hispanics, Sudanese and Somali — and the fruits of the organization's labor are emerging. The latest accomplishment this summer was getting an Islamic scouting group off the ground. Last recorded, Samlaska said there were 18 Islamic youth participating with meetings held at the Mankato Islamic Center.
“It's a growing population, and we want to at least offer them the opportunity to come check us out for their youth because I think it's a great (organization),” said Samlaska, who also was in scouting in his youth.
The Islamic pack is just one of various diverse scouting groups under Twin Valley Council. Building off of years spent working to bolster diversity in scouting in southern Minnesota, Twin Valley Council's Diversity and Inclusion Initiative Plan outlined this summer calls for additional changes, said Rene Maes, district director.
The plan calls for diversity training for staff and the executive board by the Greater Mankato Diversity Council; hiring additional program aides to work in diverse communities; and working to bring scouting programs to Mankato's Hispanic community and Albert Lea's Hispanic and Sudanese communities.
A great deal of progress already has been made in Twin Valley Council, which serves 15 counties in southern Minnesota. With 86 children registered in the Diversity in Scouting programs, about 9 percent of Twin Valley Council are minorities.
“Since 2005 we've been working with our diverse groups,” Maes said, which is the year a Sudanese program began in Mankato.
There's also a Hispanic scouting program in Sleepy Eye (and Madelia and St. James incorporates their Hispanic youth into the existing scouting programs). Walnut Grove has a Hmong program, and Redwood Falls has a Native American program.
Special programming, such as after-school and diversity programs, also is offered through scouts that serve the diverse communities in Austin and Albert Lea.
Maes said finally getting the Islamic group off the ground in Mankato was a big achievement. Due to language and cultural barriers, it was difficult to reach out and convey the message of what scouting is all about. It was also a challenge to find leaders willing to help take the time to reach out to parents and give presentations about scouting.
“I think it's an issue of trust, kind of feeling each other out,” Samlaska said.
Maes said the idea that the Boy Scouts are strictly a Christian-based organization is false.
“We have what we call a duty to God,” Maes said. “Whatever God you believe in is appropriate for you.”
There are guidelines that require scouting leaders to teach in areas of their own faith and expertise. Maes isn't Jewish, he said as an example, so he couldn't teach scouts about Judaism.
“There are opportunities for youth to earn badges of their own faith or to explore and learn about others,” he said.
Maes said beginning scouting programs that target Islamic, Sudanese or Hispanic students is meant to get the kids involved in scouting and then offer them opportunities to integrate into other existing packs, troops or venture crews if they want to.
“That way the separation is not there,” Maes said. “We want that integration of students and families and youth. That way they feel a part of the program.”
For example, there is a pack, troop and venture crew for children with type I diabetes, but many of the scouts also participate in a second troop with various other boys their own age to earn their badges. However, each pack has its own charter and integration is not required, Maes said.
“What we've found with the Sudanese is they like their group … but they also want to participate in everything we do — all the campouts, day camps and trainings,” Maes said. “They bring their leaders, and they bring their youths.”
Maes said with the Mankato diverse population growing, it's important for Boy Scouts to also reflect that change to make sure that all children are being reached and given the opportunity to have their lives enriched by scouting.
Boy Scouts help keep young men out of trouble and on the track to successful lives as responsible adults, he said.
“That's what scouting is all about; it's to help them make better choices,” Maes said.
David Ngor, Sudanese leader, said he's enjoyed seeing involvement in the program grow over time. There are about 20 Sudanese boys involved now, he said.
"It's definitely helped the boys with meeting new friends, learning through experience, helping them to know they have responsibilities, learning respect for all people, getting involved in their community, and helping each other out," he said.