Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful ... This Great Teacher Abides By The Scout Law

Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful ... This Great Teacher Abides By The Scout Law

11:32am May 20, 2015
Romy Vasquez leads the boys in drills ahead of an upcoming Eagle Scout ceremony.
Romy Vasquez leads the boys in drills ahead of an upcoming Eagle Scout ceremony.
Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR
  • Romy Vasquez leads the boys in drills ahead of an upcoming Eagle Scout ceremony.

    Romy Vasquez leads the boys in drills ahead of an upcoming Eagle Scout ceremony.

    Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

  • Troop 780 Scoutmaster Romualdo Vasquez Peña III (aka Romy) has been working with Scouts in South Central LA for 27 years.

    Troop 780 Scoutmaster Romualdo Vasquez Peña III (aka Romy) has been working with Scouts in South Central LA for 27 years.

    Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

  • Jonathan Moncilla, 18, is one of Vasquez's newest Eagle Scouts.

    Jonathan Moncilla, 18, is one of Vasquez's newest Eagle Scouts.

    Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

Only a small number of Boy Scouts make Eagle Scout.

The feat is even harder when you come from inner-city poverty.

Yet for 27 years, Romy Vasquez has successfully encouraged boys from South Central Los Angeles to become Scouts, and he has seen more than a dozen members of Troop 780 go on to reach scouting's highest rank.

His pitch: You want to be in a gang? Scouting is the biggest gang in the world.

"It's global," he tells the Scouts. "We got some in Japan, China, Israel, all over. So guess what? You belong to BSA!"

Despite the controversy over its ban on gay volunteers, the Boy Scouts of America is one of the largest youth organizations in the country, with about a million members. That means a lot of young minds being shaped by teachers who go by a different title: scoutmaster.

Romualdo Vasquez Peña III is the leader of Troop 780. The Scouts call him "Romy," and tonight they're meeting in the auditorium of South Park Elementary School.

And yes, they rock their uniforms — even Vasquez — neckerchief and all. He tells the kids that people don't make fun of soldiers in uniform, and they won't make fun of them when they wear the scouting green with pride.

Romy Vasquez leads the boys in drills ahead of an upcoming Eagle Scout ceremony.

Romy Vasquez leads the boys in drills ahead of an upcoming Eagle Scout ceremony.

Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

"You be proud, you tuck it in and you be proud," he says.

Many of the Troop 780 Scouts come from single-parent homes and live in poverty. Some of the parents are undocumented. Some of the boys are undocumented. These kids have a lot of added stress in their lives.

As cliche as it sounds, Vasquez says it's easier in neighborhoods like this to join a gang than the Scouts.

And so, he says, "If I don't modify the program, I'm going to lose a lot of my boys."

He says it's all about meeting the boys where they're at. If there's an activity his Scouts can't afford, they raise the money. Vasquez, originally from Tijuana, Mexico, talks with the boys' parents in Spanish.

He tries to make sure his Scouts are comfortable with both their Latino and American identities, and says he learned all this over the three decades he's been involved in scouting. He was a parent volunteer, then a den leader when his son was a Cub Scout. So, when his son was old enough to become a Boy Scout, Vasquez followed.

"I said, 'Goodbye, Cub Scouts,' and I just stayed."

Today, he's a dad and grandfather who takes care of his disabled mom, works and goes to school full time. (He's working on a bachelor's degree in psychology.)

And Vasquez hasn't lived in LA for years. He stays 90 miles away in Victorville and makes the drive three times a month to meet with his troop.

"I'm on call 24 hours with my boys, and I've always told my boys: If I have to pick you up because you got into trouble or you're in the wrong place and you need help, pick up the phone and call me. Tell me, 'Romy come and get me.' Fine, I'm on my way to pick you up."

Jonathan Moncilla, 18, is one of Vasquez's newest Eagle Scouts.

Jonathan Moncilla, 18, is one of Vasquez's newest Eagle Scouts.

Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

His teaching style? Eagle Scout Joaquin Morales, 19, describes it in three words: blunt, loud and pushy. And, Morales explains, that's a good thing: "I guess I see him as another parent, if that makes sense."

"Some teachers don't go as far as Romy does," says 19-year-old Gabriel Heredia, another of Vasquez's Eagle Scouts. He's been with the troop for six years and gone hiking, fishing and, most recently, backpacking for a week in Yosemite National Park.

"I carried 50 pounds on me. I had my bear canister, my clothes, my sleeping bag, my tent and everything," Heredia says, beaming. "And, some of us wanted to quit, too. We were tired, but Romy said, 'You can't quit. If I can make it, you can make it!' "

The temptation to quit is everywhere. Nearly 40 percent of kids in this ZIP code don't finish high school. But Heredia not only graduated, he's taking classes at a community college and plans to transfer to Humboldt State University.

He wants to be a park ranger and says Vasquez pushing him to make his Eagle Scout rank was the first step.

"I expect that one of my young men is going to be the CEO of a company," Vasquez says, talking about his Eagle Scouts. "I expect that. They can succeed no matter where they go."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Only six percent of Boy Scouts reach the Eagle Scout rank. That feat is even harder for young men who come from inner-city poverty. Today we're going to a neighborhood in South Los Angeles that's produced more than a dozen Eagle Scouts. That's thanks to a teacher who also holds the title scoutmaster. For our series 50 Great Teachers, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji makes this introduction.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Scoutmaster Romy Vasquez totally reminds me of Jaime Escalante, the math teacher played by Edward James Olmos in one of my favorite great teacher movies, "Stand And Deliver."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAND AND DELIVER")

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante) I can't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As students) A negative times a negative equals a positive.

OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante) Louder.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As students) A negative times a negative equals a positive.

MERAJI: But instead of calculus, its canoeing. And on this day, the kids aren't practicing for an AP test but an Eagle Scout ceremony, in uniform - green pants, khaki shirts tucked-in, some with sashes full of merit badges.

ROMY VASQUEZ: I can't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: All rise.

VASQUEZ: A little bit louder.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: All rise.

VASQUEZ: I know you can speak louder.

MERAJI: Describe Romy.

JOAQUIN MORALES: Blunt - that's the main one that'll describe him. Loud, pushy sometimes. (Laughter).

MERAJI: Blunt, loud and pushy - adjectives from 19-year-old Joaquin Morales, one of Vasquez's Eagle Scouts. But Morales says that's why he loves him.

MORALES: I don't know, I guess I see him as another parent, if that makes sense.

MERAJI: Many of Vasquez's scouts come from single-parent homes. Some of the parents are undocumented and some of the boys are undocumented. These kids have a lot of added stress in their lives. So erase that image of the Boy Scouts who hold meetings in the backyard of a two-story on a leafy, suburban cul-de-sac. We're in South Central LA, where, as cliche as it sounds, Vasquez says it's easier to join a gang than the Boy Scouts of America, and scouting is not particularly cool so he modifies his pitch.

VASQUEZ: BSA - that's the biggest gang in the world. It's global. We got some in Japan, China, Israel, all over, like - are you serious? Well, guess what? You belong to BSA.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

VASQUEZ: They're like, OK.

MERAJI: Troop 780 meets in the auditorium of the South Park Elementary School on the corner of Manchester and Avalon in South Central, which is near three different housing projects. Vasquez has been holding meetings here for years and it all started because his son wanted to be a Cub Scout.

VASQUEZ: I moved up the ranks as a den leader, parent volunteer. My son moved over, crossed over, says, goodbye Cub Scouts. And I just stayed.

MERAJI: For 27 years, which means he's no stranger to the Boy Scouts' controversial ban on gay volunteers. But he told me the work is important and necessary and refuses to say more. So necessary, he drives from his home in Victorville, which is 90 miles away, to meet with his scouts three times a month. That, on top of working, taking care of his disabled mom and going to school to finish his bachelor's. He says no matter what, great teachers show up and make themselves available.

VASQUEZ: I'm on-call 24 hours for my boys. And I've always told my boys, if I have to pick you up because you got into trouble or you in the wrong place and you need help, pick up the phone and call me. Tell me, Romy, come and get me. Fine. I'm on my way to pick you up.

GABRIEL HEREDIA: Some teachers won't go as far as Romy does.

MERAJI: Nineteen-year-old Gabriel Heredia is another one of Vasquez's Eagle Scouts. He's been with the troop for six years and gone hiking, fishing and most recently, backpacking for a week in Yosemite.

HEREDIA: I carried 50 pounds on me. I had my bear canister, had my clothes, my sleeping bag, my tent, everything. And some of us wanted to quit too, like, we were like, we're tired. But Romy was like, no, you guys can't quit - if I made it, you can make it.

MERAJI: And the temptation to quit is everywhere. Nearly 40 percent of kids in this ZIP code don't finish high school. But Heredia not only graduated, he's taking classes at a community college and plans to transfer to Humboldt State. He wants to be a park ranger and says Vasquez pushing him to make his Eagle Scout rank was the first step.

VASQUEZ: I expect one of my young men are going to be a CEO of a company. I expect that. They can succeed no matter where they go.

MERAJI: Vasquez is talking about his Eagle Scouts. He believes if his kids, with all the additional stress they're under, can make Eagle, they can do anything. And over the years, Vasquez has had 16 with three more on the way, which means more days like this of grueling rehearsals for upcoming Eagle Scout ceremonies.

VASQUEZ: One more time.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, helpful, kind...

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: ...Cheerful, obedient, courteous.

VASQUEZ: Practice, practice, gentlemen. Do not embarrass me or your parents. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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