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Girl Scouts at 100: Making a Better World, One Girl at a Time

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As Girl Scouts around the world prepare to kick off their second century, discover what’s new, and what remains the same, in the organization that was founded eight years before U.S. women got the right to vote.

Abby Cook, Annika Waldron and Regan Cook are all part of the Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois Council.

Some 3.2 million girls, and millions of alumnae, are gearing up to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) on March 12, 2012, and it’s an impressive group. About 80 percent of America’s female business owners and executives are Girl Scouts alumnae, as are 58 percent of U.S. Congresswomen and 22 percent of NASA’s career astronauts.

“But we’re not just celebrating 100 years of existence,” says Christine Posey, director of leadership experience for the Badgerland Council of GSUSA, in Wisconsin. “We’re kicking off the next century of Girl Scouting.”

Indeed, the organization has shored up its structure, revamped its curriculum, updated its lingo and repositioned itself to carry on its mission: Building girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place.

“Girl Scouting hasn’t changed, but the vocabulary and curriculum have,” says Posey. “We’re a leadership organization. We help girls to become strong young women, to connect with each other and the world. But as girls have evolved, so, too, has the organization. Just think how much girls, and their roles in society, have changed over the past century.”

As part of its commitment to remain relevant in modern society, GSUSA researches girls, their issues and attitudes, and acts upon its research findings. When the problem of negative body image became prevalent, for example, GSUSA worked with the Dove brand to launch the “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in which product ads feature real women, not models, and focus on promoting real, natural beauty, in an effort to offset the unrealistically thin and unhealthy archetypal images associated with modeling.

In 2010, GSUSA tackled the “negative images” issue head-on with the Healthy Media for Youth Summit and the introduction of the related Healthy Media for Youth Act (H.R. 49v25). The summit drew participation from celebrities and other leaders.

Among other things, the legislation gave rise to a competitive grant program to support media literacy programs and establish the National Taskforce on Women and Girls in the Media.

When bullying and cyber-bullying became a widespread problem, Girl Scouts stepped up to help girls cope with the problem in a healthy manner, rather than isolating themselves.

“There’s a lot more to Girl Scouts than cookies, camping and crafts,” says Cindy Kocol, director of communications for the Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois council. “Those are all good things, but they’re only the beginning. Girl Scouts is about the friendships you make, and the confidence you gain, that stay with you your whole life. It’s about developing a strong sense of self, internalizing positive values, developing critical thinking, solving problems, taking on challenges.”

A Brownie Named Annika

Chances are that Pecatonica resident Annika Waldron, 7, (AH-nee-ka) doesn’t know she’s doing all of those important things. She’s just having a great time making friends and enjoying the cookies-camping-crafts aspect of her Girl Scouts experience. The second-grader already spent two years as a Girl Scout Daisy and is starting her second year as a Girl Scout Brownie.

“I like learning about new things and helping people and making new friends,” says Annika. “And I like it that my mom does it with me. She’s only ever missed one meeting in three years.”

Indeed, that’s an impressive record for this busy single mom who works two jobs, but Angelina Waldron has made Girl Scouts time with her daughter a high priority. “I was a Girl Scout when I was growing up in northwest Rockford, and I think it helped me to stay on the right path,” she explains. “I did learn a lot of positive values, like being honest and helping other people. My parents worked a lot, so I spent a lot of time with baby sitters, and Girl Scouts was like extended family. But I want Annika’s Girl Scouts experience to be something we share.”

Angelina is a co-leader for her daughter’s Brownie troop, which meets twice per month. Annika happily ticks off a list of her most memorable Girl Scouts experiences to date. “We’ve made snowmen on sticks and sent them to sick people who had to be at the hospital at Christmas,” she says. “And we picked up garbage from some beaches, and planted flowers in a park in Pecatonica that was looking kind of sad. And we sent letters to some soldiers in the war and tasted the kind of food they have to eat.”

Her troop has marched in the Pecatonica Memorial Day Parade; visited Hoo Haven to learn how director Karen Herdklotz helps injured wild animals; carried banners at the Rockford Air Show; learned about fire safety, First Aid, s’more-making and proper handling of the U.S. flag. Troop members also have gone swimming at Rockford’s CoCo Key water park, attended a Rockford IceHogs game and met the Sugar Plum Fairy during a reading at a local bookstore. As a volunteer emissary for Girl Scouts, Annika has broadcasted live on the radio, too.

“She applies the ideas we learn in Scouts to some of her experiences at school, when we’re talking about her school day,” says Angelina. “Things like the importance of telling the truth, and talking out your conflict rather than using your hands to push people, when you’re angry. She’s learning to be accountable for her own behavior and to resist peer pressure, and to recognize bullying when it happens.”

She’s just 7, but Annika has sold Girl Scouts cookies door-to-door, with Angelina closely watching. “She doesn’t ask me to do the work for her. She’s developing self-reliance, practicing good manners, and learning some basics about earning money.”

Annika also enjoys eating Girl Scouts cookies. Who doesn’t? “The shortbread Trefoils are good, but those Thin Mints are best,” she says. ABC Bakers makes the cookies for Badgerland Council, and Little Brownie Bakers makes them for Northern Illinois Girl Scouts.

Angelina believes that the ideals she learned as a child Girl Scout have helped her in her dual jobs at a major insurance company and as a certified nursing assistant. “Good customer service skills are important in all kinds of work, and that’s one of the things I picked up through all the service projects we did.”

In many ways, Annika and Angelina exemplify exactly what Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low envisioned 100 years ago. “She wanted to bring girls out of isolated home environments into the open air and community service,” says Kocol. “They hiked, played basketball, went on camping trips, learned how to tell time by the stars, studied First Aid … some even became involved in flying. She was a forward-thinking woman who wanted to empower girls with skills that they could use beyond housekeeping. Given the era she lived in, it was really quite an endeavor.”

What a Woman

Juliette Gordon was born into a large, privileged family in Savannah, Ga., in 1860, a year before the Civil War. Her father raised cotton and served as a Confederate officer during the war. At age 26, she married wealthy Englishman William Mackay Low, dividing her time between England and Savannah. An avid traveler, artist, athlete and animal lover, she was known for her sense of humor and spunk. Although nearly deaf, she searched for something meaningful to do with her life.

While in England, at age 52, six years after her husband’s death, Low met and became inspired by Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. She returned to Savannah and, on March 12, 2012, phoned her distant cousin, famously saying, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!” She invited 18 Savannah girls to her home and registered the first troop of the American Girl Guides. The name changed to Girl Scouts the following year. Low believed that girls should have the opportunity to develop themselves mentally, physically and spiritually.

“Today we’d describe her as being a real pistol,” says Posey. “She really got people’s attention and believed in what she was doing. Given the times she lived in, she was definitely going against the odds. Women didn’t even get the right to vote for another eight years, in 1920.”

All the more remarkable is the fact that this daughter of a plantation owner ensured that African-American, American Indian and Hispanic girls were able to become Girl Scouts. She made sure Girl Scouting was available to girls who lived in rural and urban areas; to girls who were rich, middle class and poor; and to immigrant girls as well as those born here.

Today, GSUSA has a membership of more than 3.2 million, and more than 50 million American women are Girl Scout alumnae. It’s open to all girls from kindergarten through high school. In Illinois, about 136,000 girls are Scouts; in Wisconsin, nearly 65,000 girls participate.

Preparing for the Next 100 Years

As the organization began preparing itself for a new century, it made many significant changes, including cost-saving consolidation of its council offices. “There were 309 councils in the nation and, beginning in 2005, GSUSA realigned several of those together to form 112 councils today,” explains Kocol. In October 2009, four councils in northern Illinois merged to become Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois. “The thinking was to make the program more consistent from one end of the country to the other, to make more money available for programming and to make more staff available to service larger areas,” says Kocol.

Likewise, in southern Wisconsin, several councils consolidated to become the Badgerland Council, headquartered in Madison.

GSUSA serves girls grades K-12, through the Daisy (K-1), Brownie (2-3), Junior (4-5), Cadette (6-8), Senior (9-10) and Ambassador (11-12) program levels. When they’ve completed 12th grade, young women may opt to become lifelong members of Girl Scouts. “To help girls stay in Girl Scouting with their ever increasingly busy schedules, six pathways of participation have been identified as part of the Girl Scout Leadership Experience,” says Kocol. “These include series, troop, camp, events, travel and virtual pathways. With these pathways in place, girls can choose how and when they participate in Girl Scouting.”

Along the same lines, while GSUSA still relies heavily upon adult volunteers to lead troops, it has widened opportunities for adults to become involved in smaller time increments.

“If you want to stuff envelopes at an administrative office or clear trails at the camp properties, we love it,” says Posey. “But we also look for women who are experts in their interest areas to donate two or three hours a week for six weeks, leading a series on a specific topic, like engineering, or travel. If you’re an engineer, maybe you set up a display at a local school that introduces girls to the concept of how to build a bridge.”

GSUSA is highly interested in exposing girls to fields traditionally reserved for men, including those that are math, technology and science-related. From its research, the organization knows that many girls drop out of math and science activities by fifth grade.

Right: Girls work on a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) project offered by Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois.

“We had teams that just participated with the LEGO League, for example,” says Kocol. “And members of Northern Illinois University’s engineering department run summer camps for the girls. It empowers girls to know they really can do anything they want to, and they don’t have to back off just because this is a field they’re ‘not supposed to know about.’”

It’s all part of keeping the Girl Scouts experience relevant.

“Two years ago, GSUSA came out with Journeys, the start of the national program portfolio,” Kocol explains. “It’s the core resource that helps girls to move along their pathway in Girl Scouting, and it revolves around three keys to leadership: discover, connect and take action. The first journey is called ‘It’s Your World, Change It.’”

Posey, a lifelong Girl Scout who’s worked for the organization professionally for five years, likes the new Journeys curriculum. “I love it, because it’s a much more robust resource for working with girls. It’s less ‘fluffy,’ let’s say, than the traditional Girl Scouts handbook and badge system. But it’s hard to part with tradition, and many women have such good memories of growing up with the old handbook.”

Girls may choose to earn badges for a wide array of subjects from traditional to modern, or may design their own badge program in an interest area of their choosing.

“With the new Journeys curriculum, you’re still earning badges, but whereas you may have had to write a report on the badge subject, now you’re doing more in-depth and hands-on activities,” says Posey.

Example: The Savvy Shopper activity is one pathway to earning a Business Badge.

“The new Journeys curriculum asks you to tour rooms in your house and write down five things in each room that are the most important to you,” explains Posey. “So you have to make choices – is that 7th pair of blue jeans in the bedroom more important than that lamp you need for reading? It helps you to prioritize, distinguish your needs from your wants. Each time a girl feels the ‘I want that’ urge, she logs it and tries to identify the trigger that caused it. Then she’s asked to discuss these triggers with family and friends. There’s also an exercise about talking to other people about major purchases they’ve made – what decisions went into them, and how the purchases made them feel. And there’s a trends section that asks girls to think about the things girls their age wanted in different time periods.”

Alongside the groundbreaking studies conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute, GSUSA is evaluating the effectiveness of its own programming. It’s identified 15 outcomes that demonstrate Girl Scouts are discovering themselves, connecting with others and taking action to make the world a better place. They include developing healthy relationships, seeking challenges in the world, being resourceful problem-solvers and identifying community needs. Girls’ progress toward these outcomes is measured to ensure that programming is doing what it’s designed to do.

Celebrate!

Girl Scouts at all levels are planning a year of special activities. The Badgerland council will join other Wisconsin councils to stage a rally at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center on March 12, followed by a march to the state’s capitol building and a 3,600-girl slumber party. Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois will hold a similar event at the NIU Convocation Center in DeKalb, on April 28.

Nationally, the Year of the Girl kicked off in Houston in November, during the organization’s national convention.

“We have a nationwide goal of raising $1 billion to transform the philanthropic landscape for women and girls, providing girls around the world with the skills and opportunities to reach their fullest potential,” says Kocol.

Recognizing that 5,000 baby girls will be born in the United States on March 12, GSUSA will invite parents to register with the GSUSA website, and to post their daughters’ photos along with aspirations for their lives. With parental permission, GSUSA will track and study these girls year by year. Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois will prepare special baskets for baby girls born in local hospitals on that day.

Throughout the country, Girl Scouts will attend local city council meetings as special proclamations are made in honor of the anniversary.

“Girl Scouts – Forever Green” is the national 2012 theme, and councils will choose from among environmentally friendly service projects with lasting significance, such as establishing rain gardens or reducing waste.

The Badgerland council is organizing a series of community service events around the number 100, such as visiting 100 shut-ins, planting 100 trees, donating 100 food items. The Northern Illinois council is organizing a 100-day countdown service event.

“We’re also asking Girl Scouts and alumnae to tell their stories, through a special website,” says Kocol. “And we’re erecting historical displays at libraries and museums throughout the region.”

On March 11, Midway Village Museum in Rockford will present an interactive lecture by an actress portraying Juliette Gordon Low. She’ll talk to girls about what it was like in the early days of Girl Scouts.

Women and girls have come a long way, baby, since 1912. And so has the Girl Scouts organization. While no one can say life is perfect for the modern U.S. woman, who still faces a whirlwind of conflicting ideas about her role in society, one can say she has more opportunities now than she ever has before. And skills gained through Girl Scouts have already helped countless young women to be prepared when those opportunities have come along. Now, the organization has prepared itself to meet the needs of generations of girls to come. Indeed, there’s much to celebrate.

“As we kick off the next century of Girl Scouting, we can’t help but be excited about what the future holds,” says Posey. “We’re clearly focused and ready to go.”

Highest Honors

Earning the Girl Scout Gold Award, GSUSA’s highest honor, involves a process that’s just as rigorous as earning the Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts. Completing a Gold Award project may take up to two years and is a major milestone for Girl Scouts between the ages of 14 and 18. Only about 5 percent of eligible girls take on the challenge, but those who complete the journey change their lives and the lives of others in amazing ways.

  • Girls pursuing the Gold Award are recognized as community leaders by virtue of the impact of their projects.
  • A number of colleges and universities have recognized the leadership ability of Gold Award recipients by establishing scholarship programs for them.
  • Girls who’ve earned the Gold Award, having already demonstrated a high level of leadership, enter the armed services one rank higher than other recruits. The Gold Award also influences admission to service academies such as West Point and Annapolis.
  • Girls who’ve earned the Gold Award may apply their service hours toward earning the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
  • Source: GSUSA

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