A van full of Cub Scouts rolls up an incline in Milton one brisk Saturday afternoon, spilling out 16 eager boys from Dorchester, where the landscape is vastly different from the tangle of red maples and witch hazels on this suburban campground.
“Are we going into the woods?’’ 9-year-old Elijah Moran asks a camp leader as he arrives at the local Scouts’ annual pumpkinfest, a daylong event full of pumpkin bowling, seed-spitting, archery, and hay rides - and the chance for boys to participate in activities that will help them earn Cub Scout badges.
“Trashaun! Trashaun,’’ Moran hollers to a fellow Scout, after getting a rundown of the activities. “There’s going to be a hay ride!’’
Owned by the Boy Scouts, Camp Sayer sits on 100 acres in Milton, a neighbor of Mattapan and a short ride from Dorchester and Roxbury and has hosted plenty of scouting events like this one over the decades. But it might as well be a world away for some of the African-American, Latino, and Asian boys who file to schools each weekday in dense urban neighborhoods nearby.
Since the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated in 1910, it has been a rite of passage for millions of boys, many of whom were following in their fathers’ and grandfathers’ footsteps - but few boys in the inner city have had a family legacy of scouting to build on. Now the Boston Minuteman Council, a local division of the Scouts, is hoping to close the race and ZIP code divide with a full-court press into Boston neighborhoods and neighboring cities like Somerville, Cambridge, and Chelsea. The Dorchester kids arriving at the pumpkinfest are part of that effort.
The push began earlier this year after a ZIP code analysis the council conducted of its 6,500 Scout members showed that few of them lived in ethnically diverse communities in or near Boston. “It made us acutely aware that we weren’t doing a good job at reaching the kids in the inner city,’’ says Chuck Eaton, the council’s executive director.
“I felt that if we made scouting available and more accessible to those kids, that they would appreciate it and love it.’’ The Scouts believe it will work after a successful test effort in housing developments in Cambridge three years ago, Eaton adds.
Cub Scout membership nationwide has stagnated at about 1.6 million over the past few years, motivating the council and other Scout groups to seek ways to expand their ranks.
No matter where they live, boys are attracted to scouting because it’s fun, says Eaton. They learn to do things like camp, fish, light a fire, tie knots, or shoot a bow and arrow. For boys just starting off in the program, earning badges for those skills and wearing a uniform are among scouting’s biggest draws.
Parents, says Eaton, appreciate what the scouting community and its volunteers teach boys - from larger concepts like what it means to be an upstanding young man to practical skills.
“My mom was a single mom, and I learned how to change a tire from the boy scouts,’’ says Eaton.
Earlier this year, the council hired an urban coordinator, Alana Hylton, to recruit new Cub Pack members, as well as adult volunteers. By the beginning of last month, at least 200 boys in the Boston area had signed on, and the aim is to get another 200 by the end of the year. The Boston council has a long range goal of 800 new Cub Scouts by the end of 2013 in local urban communities.
“A lot of boys may not have any idea about what scouting is,’’ says Hylton, a Dorchester native, of the kids she’s been recruiting. She says the council is seeking to give inner city boys the same opportunities as suburban kids to build character and a sense of civic duty, and to enjoy the outdoors.
To make joining new packs easier for low-income members, the council has waived its $15 annual registration fee for inner city members and set up a system that lets boys earn points - by having solid attendance and participating in Cub Scout activities, for example - to get such things as Cub Scout hats, their handbooks, or their uniforms. (The council is picking up the tab for organizing and the uniforms.)
After about eight months, say Eaton and other Scout officials, these boys can earn their uniforms and join other Cub Scouts on camping excursions.
“He’s really got to get in the game and understand what Cub Scouts is, and that is when he starts to get his camping trips,’’ Eaton says.
Some parents say they are thrilled about the program. “There aren’t a lot of activities specifically geared for young boys,’’ says Rina Ambrose, whose 6-year-old son, Kyre, recently signed up for the Cub Scouts at Mather Elementary School in Dorchester. “We thought this is a way to get him in.’’
The new packs typically meet weekly in the afternoons in school buildings and community centers, so that parents don’t have to worry about one more destination to drop off their kids. Hylton leads one recent meeting for Pack 17, established this year at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain.
Her boisterous audience of 30 boys isn’t listening when Hylton goes over some first aid tips - instead, they tease each other, giggle, and squirm in their chairs. Hylton captures their interest when she finishes the lesson and moves on to some games. At the end of the meeting, 7-year-old Shaunjae Reymosa stands before the group and recites a version of the Cub Scout promise, his small voice filling the cavernous room.
“I promise to do my best,’’ he says. “I promise to do my duty. I promise to guard my country. I promise to help other people. I promise to obey the law.’’
If the young Scouts sometimes get distracted during classroom activities, they seem to have no problem paying attention at the pumpkinfest at Camp Sayer near the Blue Hills.
“Hold your left arm straight,’’ says range master Bob Varnum, at an archery session. William Harney, a fifth-grader at the Mather School, hits his mark.
“I feel proud,’’ he says, as his mother, Colleen White, yelps.
Nearby, Jacari Thames, a wise-sounding 9-year-old from Dorchester, says it’s his first time in the woods and he’s looking forward to firing a BB gun.
His grandfather, Martell Bennett, who has accompanied him here today, traversed the campground decades before as a Boy Scout. And today, Bennett is proud to have a program in Dorchester and to be able to share the experience with his grandson.
“Inner city kids really don’t have much to do,’’ Bennett says. “This is so different for him.’’