Andrea Linares waited for the members of Girl Scouts of Sterling's Troop 1891, one of the region's few Hispanic troops. The leader had plenty of cookies and handouts, but she was unsure how many girls to expect for the first meeting of the school year. After all, two of eight Scouts had moved to Winchester over the summer, and though they had vowed to stick with it, Linares had doubts.
So far, one Scout had showed up. Evelyn Avarca, a 10-year-old with a tumble of dark curls, was perched on her mother's lap, filling out a questionnaire. She had no problem thinking of her favorite treat -- cake -- but she was stumped on her birthplace.
Turning to her mother, Maria Eva Rodriguez, Evelyn asked: "Donde naci?"
"Fairfax," Rodriguez said.
Thirty minutes after the meeting's scheduled start time, three more girls bounded into the room, greeting Linares with flawless English and kisses. Linares decided four troop members and three parents were enough to begin.
"Gracias por venir," Linares said, thanking everyone for coming.
The meeting recently at the Sterling Community Center illustrated the efforts the Girl Scouts are making to attract Hispanic girls in the region and some of the obstacles the organization faces along the way.
Girl Scouts officials say young Latinas have seen the uniforms, have heard about the hiking trips and are eager to join. With high school dropout rates high and college completion rates low among Latinos, Hispanic girls especially can benefit from a group that emphasizes achievement, they say.
Still, breaking into Hispanic communities can be tricky, Scout leaders say, with parents resisting for a variety of reasons. Some parents think they cannot afford to participate, or those who work long hours might depend on their daughters to care for younger siblings. And some who lived through Central American wars are repelled by the Scout uniform, seeing it as militaristic, said Lidia Soto-Harmon, deputy director for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital.
Soto-Harmon said the regional council does not know how many Scouts in the region are Hispanic -- the organization is gathering data -- but she said she knows there are too few.
To bridge the gap, area Scout leaders are stepping up outreach to Hispanics while working hard to dispel what they say are myths about Girl Scouts -- that it is for tomboys or rich white girls -- and to adjust programs to suit complicated home lives. They are printing fliers in Spanish, providing fee subsidies and canvassing at apartment buildings. The regional council has three "outreach specialists" who speak Spanish and English.
"We're trying to reach the parents," Soto-Harmon said. "The kids get it."
The summer camp was one of several sponsored by the Girl Scouts across the region that targeted Hispanic girls who are not members. But anyone was welcome, and the cost was nominal. The Arlington camp, Camp El Sol, was held at Key Elementary School and attracted girls -- and even a few boys -- with roots in Bolivia, Iran, Mongolia and France, among other countries. Campers learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish and to make paper flowers, a Mexican tradition.
Alexa Thomas, a Girl Scouts field director in Arlington and Alexandria, said immigrant parents often think falsely that they will need to provide immigration documents to sign up their daughters. When going door-to-door, Thomas said she and other outreach workers wear T-shirts, not uniforms, so as not to look intimidating.
The Sterling troop was formed two years ago when Loudoun Scout leaders became concerned that Latinas on the eastern edge of the county, where the Hispanic population is booming, were not joining at a rate reflecting their population. There is still a long way to go, said Lorrie L. Caudle, the membership development specialist in Loudoun. About 40 percent of students in Sterling Park schools are Hispanic, yet Hispanics make up only about 10 percent or 15 percent of Girl Scouts there.
Caudle and Linares said the members of Troop 1891 and another Hispanic troop for high school students, also led by Linares, are not concerned about whether they are in a Hispanic troop; they are used to diverse schools, and they speak English well. Caudle acknowledged that the idea of Hispanic troops is exclusive by definition, even though girls who are not Hispanic are welcome. But she has seen reluctant parents perk up when they learn about the troops.
"There is definitely a comfort level for parents to have Hispanic leaders that they can communicate with," she said.
Linares, 30, said warm memories of her Scouting days in her native Peru spurred her to become a leader here. She has learned to be flexible; many of her Scouts have parents who work multiple jobs and cannot ferry their daughters to outings.
"It takes a lot of me picking them up and bringing them in and taking them home," she said. She hopes the younger troop will grow larger this year.
At a recent meeting, Linares spoke Spanish as she went over the year's outings schedule, a form that was in English. She discussed fundraising, then asked for community service ideas.
That got the parents interested. One suggested the girls sing to senior citizens or visit hospital patients. Another thought they should clean a church. Linares said activities such as those could help the Scouts someday earn Gold Awards, the organization's highest honor, which would be an asset on college applications.
"It's not all, 'Oh, we're going camping. Oh, we're going skating,' " Linares said in Spanish. "It's to learn."
Later, Carmen Rivera said that the troop gives her daughters, Paula Reyes, 8, and Stefany Reyes, 11, the kind of experience she had in a similar program in Guatemala and that it is all the better that it involves their native language.
"It's important for me that I can speak with the leader in Spanish," Rivera said. Equally important is that her daughters can, too. "In school they speak English, with their little friends they speak English. So it's a time for us."
Plus, she said, Linares is "very special." That prompted a hug from Linares.
Rodriguez, Evelyn's mother, agreed. Her daughters -- Fatima Avarca, 15, is in the high school troop -- assure her Linares is a "very good person," she said. Hearing that, Linares jumped up and offered Rodriguez a hug, too.
Later, the four girls clutched candles and lined up to affirm their Girl Scout oaths. Rivera took pictures with a digital camera, and Rodriguez glowed. Afterward, everyone gathered around the table to munch cookies and talk about their summer vacations.