Against All Odds
By Cindy Ross
After years of failed efforts to bring Scouting to an immigrant community in San Rafael, Calif., Scoutmaster Willy Coronado makes a breakthrough with the success of Troop 2000.
It took 10 long years. Ten years of community mistrust and repeated efforts to establish a foothold for Scouting among recent Latin American and other immigrants.
But things turned around in 2000. That was the year Boy Scout Troop 2000 began in San Rafael, Calif. Ever since, the troop has been a shining example of how Scouting can thrive in a diverse, multicultural environment.
How did it happen? Most people give full credit to the troop’s charismatic Scoutmaster, Willy Coronado.
A land of opposites
Marin County, Calif., on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, boasts the nation’s highest income per capita. Nestled within the county, however, sits a unique neighborhood called the Canal, a world completely foreign to the nearby enclaves of pricey real estate and conspicuous consumption.
This neighborhood, in the city of San Rafael, is home to more than 12,000 people, and more than 7,000 of them were born in another country. The residents speak 22 different languages and live in packed public housing buildings. They struggle to earn a living in service-sector jobs, learn English, and become part of a brand new world.
Canal community leaders knew the neighborhood’s young people needed a positive alternative to the lure of gang membership. Sports teams, however, never took hold because residents were frequently transient, moving to better jobs and better homes, often within a year.
People tried repeatedly to organize a Scout troop in the Canal, but they failed because the predominantly Latino community felt intimidated by the organizers’ “military-looking” Scout uniforms.
It wasn’t that the Latino parents didn’t care—they were just busy eking out an existence and needed the right leader to trust. The question was: Who would that person be?
Man with a mission
Enter Willy Coronado, Scoutmaster of Troop 1, one of the largest and most successful troops in the BSA’s Marin Council. This troop, which Coronado had led for 12 years in upscale Mill Valley, had a proud history of excellence and tradition.
Coronado was born and raised in Lima, Peru. He came to the United States as a teen and raised his two sons as a single parent. He had many experiences in common with those who lived in the Canal.
That is why Gordy Rubard, who was the Marin Council Scout executive at the time, came to him with this request: “Will you try to start a troop in the Canal neighborhood?"
Because Coronado’s sons were grown and Troop 1 had a solid roster of trained leaders who could carry on, Coronado accepted the challenge.
“I knew it was my job to come here and start a troop,” he said. “It was time to do something different, and I understand Scouting and the Latino culture.”
For the next few years, Coronado worked hard to establish a presence in the community. He walked the streets, met local residents, attended the churches, and ate at the cafes. It was a struggle at every turn, and community acceptance was slow in building.
The ‘right’ chartered organization
Finding the right chartered organization for a new troop was one of Coronado’s top priorities, and he scored a big prize when he landed the support of Cam Sanchez, San Rafael’s former chief of police.
Sanchez wanted to keep Canal youth from joining gangs, and he believed Scouting would be an additional resource in that fight. Sanchez suggested that the San Rafael Police Department and San Rafael Police Association be the troop’s chartered partner.
Coronado and Sanchez, along with Gordy Rubard and the troop’s first chairman, Ramon Lopez, brainstormed ways to recruit boys. They got the local newspaper to publish information about the new troop and invited parents and boys to attend a meeting to learn about Scouting.
That was nearly eight years ago. Keith Coombs, past president of the Marin Council, said, “Willy was the answer to their prayers.”
Coronado has now led more than 120 boys through Troop 2000. Most come from Central and South America. Some don’t speak English, but that is not a problem for the Spanish-speaking Scoutmaster.
Other boys in the troop come from India and Croatia.
Even Anglo boys wanted to join the troop because of its diversity and the amazing connection the boys felt with Coronado.
Scouting far and wide
Before Troop 2000 began, the local community center was a wreck. But among grants, federal money, and the support of 11 foundations, $10 million was raised for a new facility and library. The Pickleweed Park Community Center is now Troop 2000’s home.
With the financial generosity of several council donors, Troop 2000 has sent Scouts to summer camp, the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base, Philmont Scout Ranch, and a national jamboree.
The police association bought camping gear and uniforms for the Scouts.
The boys have a sense of pride “that comes from being in uniform and the disciplined behavior that is expected from them,” said Dave Donery, supervisor of Pickleweed Community Center.
“I’ve seen the boys blossom here. They have more personal pride emanating from them than ever before.”
One of the troop’s success stories is 19-year-old Kryss Solis, the unit’s first Eagle Scout. Solis arrived in the United States from Honduras when he was 5 years old.
“Willy is our anchor, our base,” Solis said. “He holds everything together as a unit, a troop, a family.”
Now a freshman at San Francisco State University, Solis is pursuing a career in broadcasting communications.
“Through Scouting, I became someone else, someone better,” he said.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Coronado over the years.
“I’ve felt like quitting from time to time,” he admitted, “especially when there wasn’t enough guys to do a program or enough interest. Sometimes I needed to recharge, get new energy, new programs.
Now, though, “I don’t think I could ever give the troop up,” Willy said. “I’ve made a lot of friends in this area. I know thousands of residents. I have huge respect for these people.”
On a first-name basis
Marin Council President Glen Calkins said: “Willy excites the imagination of the boys. He builds a platform for them and is constantly seeing that the boys are growing. He has such a broad understanding of the boys.”
Plus, Coronado does things a little differently. Scouts call him by his first name.
“He is just a kid trapped inside an adult’s body,” Eagle Scout Solis said. “He knows how to have fun, yet he teaches us incredible skills, such as outdoor survival skills. He has the Scouts’ complete respect.”
Scout Jeremy Mondot used those skills one day. “A neighbor fell down the steps and split his head open. I was able to administer first aid to him before the paramedics arrived.
“This was because of what Willy taught us,” Mondot explained. “Willy knows a lot. He helps us through situations that are really difficult.”
Scout Jose Jimenez said: “I feel better about myself because of Scouting. If it weren’t for our troop, I would be doing bad things; I’d be in the streets. I didn’t use to have good grades, but now I’m good in school. Scouting helped me a lot.”
People in Willy Coronado’s presence feel his incredible energy, spirit, and deep caring. He has inspired this same spirit in all of his Scouts, their parents, and the Canal community.
“Willy taught me how to express myself and work toward attaining my goals,” Kryss Solis said. “He taught me that there isn’t anything I can’t do with the right planning, organizing, and the right spirit.
Freelance writer Cindy Ross lives in New Ringgold, Pa. She also wrote the article “Too Fast for Fear” in this issue, about Venturers at a Michigan luge track.
Copyright © 2008 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.