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

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As girls around the world prepare to kick off Scouting’s 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.

Local Girl Scout Megan Kalafut (far right), with Scouting pals (clockwise), Lissa Ayers, Erin Guarisco, Erin Guarisco, Nina Guarisco, Meg Basco, Katelyn Phillips

Some 3.2 million girls, and millions of alumnae, have begun celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) – 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.

These forward-thinking gals aren’t just celebrating 100 years of existence on March 12; they’re also kicking off the next century of Girl Scouting.

“Girl Scouts provides opportunities to do things and meet people we probably wouldn’t get to see any other way,” says Megan Kalafut, 14, an eighth grader at Lake Zurich Middle School South, who began Scouting nine years ago. “And turning 100 means we’re not some new organization that doesn’t know what it’s about. A lot of people have come before us and figured things out so that we can have these opportunities.”

Megan likes the way Girls Scouts encourages girls to explore new experiences together, from cooking old, ethnic family recipes to designing websites and service projects. She recently flew to Houston, with a delegation of local Scouts, to attend a national-level 100th anniversary bash. There, she met many strong female role models, from scientists and engineers to big-city police chiefs, not to mention celebrities like Project Runway winner Chloe Dao.

“It was so interesting, because Chloe talked about how she made career decisions along the way and overcame obstacles by being resourceful,” says Megan. “That’s something we know about in Scouts – being resourceful.”

It wasn’t the first time Scouting had put Megan in the presence of celebrities.

“During a field trip to Chicago, we saw the musicals Shrek and Billy Elliot. Only because we were Girl Scouts, we were allowed to go backstage and meet the cast of Billy Elliot. My friend Emily wants to be an actress, so this was a very big deal to her. While in Chicago, we went to a youth hostel and met people from other countries who were staying there. We made dinner and served them, and ate with a group of Korean college students.”

It’s this wide array of experiences that mom Mary Kalafut values so much about Girl Scouts. “Anyone goes to a bank, but Girl Scouts tour the safe,” she says. “Anyone goes to Costco, but Girl Scouts tour the walk-in freezer. Anyone goes to a musical, but Girl Scouts meet the cast. It’s these little extra steps that enrich their experiences so much.”

A troop leader for nine years, Kalafut also likes the way Scouting helps her daughters to discover and explore their personal interests.

“Megan’s troop decided to learn to scuba dive,” she says. “One girl wanted nothing to do with that, and that’s OK. As the girls get older, they have more choices to make about their journeys. When they’re little, the choice may be, ‘Do we decorate flower pots or make necklaces today?’ But as they grow, they choose whether to pursue a locavore badge, or to learn about comic book artists, or to learn skills in the wilderness, and so many other things.”

Ever since she was in diapers, Elizabeth Kalafut tagged along with her mom and big sister Megan to Girl Scouts meetings, until old enough to join a Daisy troop during kindergarten. “We do super-duper fun crafts and field trips – it’s so fun,” says Elizabeth, a fourth-grader at Isaac Fox Grade School in Lake Zurich.

Elizabeth enjoys pursuing animal-related badges, such as the Backyard Chickens badge. “You learn about taking care of an animal, its diet, about being responsible for it,” she explains. “For the horse badge, you learn about parts of a horse and saddle, and about riding. You know, back then, when Juliette Low started all this, girls had to ride sidesaddle because of skirts. Now we can just wear jeans.” Elizabeth also enjoyed a CSI-type activity in which girls blew up a balloons and examined the fingerprints on them.

So what does a 100th anniversary mean to one so young?

“A long time ago, Juliette Low showed a lot of courage and started a place where girls could do some of the same things that boys got to do, like playing games outside and visiting nature,” says Elizabeth. “I’m sure that wasn’t easy, because it’s not how people thought back then, but she did it anyway, and a lot of girls like me have had fun because of it.”

Like the Kalafut sisters, Harleigh Welch, 13, of Woodstock, has been a Girl Scout most of her life. Her mom, Janey Welch, is an assistant troop leader.

“I love the service projects, the field trips, the chance to learn things I might not learn otherwise,” says Harleigh, a student at Creekside Middle School in Woodstock. “I anticipate staying in Scouts all the way through high school.”

Harleigh especially enjoyed a recent troop outing to the Northern Illinois University (NIU) STEMfest, where she took part in hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) activities led by NIU graduates.

“STEM is definitely the direction I’m heading in for a career,” Harleigh says. “I can’t see me working in an office all day long.”

Her mom was proud of the good questions troop members asked STEM staff, as part of their badge work. “They had to think through their questions very carefully, and they got in there and asked them, even the shy girls,” Welch says. “It makes you so proud to see them push beyond their comfort zones.”

Service projects are one of Harleigh’s favorite aspects of Scouting. Her troop recently presented handmade valentines to retirement home residents and helped to prepare meals at a local homeless shelter.

Welch says the recently updated curriculum used by today’s Girl Scouts better accommodates busy older girls, and also does more to encourage critical-thinking skills.

“It guides troop leaders in asking the girls open-ended questions about whatever the topic is,” Welch explains. “This helps them to figure out what they think and to articulate it, to find their voices.”

On the subject of Girl Scouting, Harleigh articulates just one frustration. “Here’s the thing,” she says. “I wish people knew that Girl Scouts isn’t only about selling cookies. There’s just so much more to it than that.”

The New Girl Scout

Harleigh isn’t the only one concerned about misperceptions. The subject was discussed among Girl Scouts leaders at all levels, in preparation for a new century.

“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, headquartered in Elgin. “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, acquring new skills, solving problems, taking on challenges.”

As a national organization, the Girl Scouts 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 Kocol. “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, GSUSA researches girls, their issues and attitudes, and acts upon its 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. Ads are focused on promoting natural beauty, in an effort to offset 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. 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 Task Force on Women and Girls in the Media.

Likewise, when bullying and cyberbullying became widespread problems, Girl Scouts stepped up to help girls cope in a healthy manner, rather than isolating themselves.

Tackling the problems girls face because of their gender or social class is in keeping with vision founder Juliette Gordon Low set for Girl Scouts one century ago.

What a Woman

Juliette Gordon was born into a large, privileged family in Savannah, Ga., in 1860, a year before the Civil War began. Her father traded cotton and served as a Confederate officer. Juliette was an avid traveler, artist, athlete and animal lover. At age 26, she married wealthy Englishman William Mackay Low. The couple lived in England, but Low visited Savannah often. Treatments for chronic ear infections had left her nearly deaf in one ear, and removal of a piece of rice tossed during her wedding caused total deafness in the other. Undaunted, she searched for something meaningful to do with her life.

Six years after her husband’s death in 1905, Low met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and became inspired by his work. She returned to Savannah and, on March 12, 1912, phoned a 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. At age 52, Low had found her meaningful work.

There’s no question Low was swimming against the tide of public sentiment. American women didn’t even receive the right to vote for another eight years. Low believed that girls should have the opportunity to develop themselves mentally, physically and spiritually.

All the more remarkable is the fact that this daughter of a an Old South plantation ensured that African-American, American Indian and Hispanic girls were welcomed as 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 in the United States.

Today, GSUSA has a membership of more than 3.2 million, and more than 50 million American women are Girl Scout alumnae. In Illinois, about 136,000 girls, age kindergarten through high school, are Scouts.

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Preparing for the Next 100 Years

As the organization prepared for a new century, it made significant changes, including cost-saving consolidation of its council offices.

“There were 309 councils in the nation, and beginning in 2005, GSUSA combined several of those 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.”

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.

“When I started as a troop leader nine years ago, I had to attend a three-hour training meeting,” says troop leader Mary Kalafut. “Today, there are options to train through webinars, conference calls – all sorts of ways to help you fit it into your life.” There also are important roles for adults who can’t commit to leading troops, from stuffing envelopes to clearing trails at Girl Scouts camps.

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.

“We had teams that just participated with the LEGO League, for example,” says Kocol. “And members of NIU’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 about 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 pathways 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.’”

Girls may earn badges in a wide array of interests, both traditional and modern, or may design their own badge programs in subjects of their choosing.

Whereas girls may once have had to write a report on a badge subject, now, with the new Journeys curriculum, they do more in-depth, hands-on activities, explains Kocol. Example: The Savvy Shopper activity is one pathway to earning a Business Badge. It challenges a girl to tour rooms in her house and write down five things in each room that are the most important to her. She make choices – is that 7th pair of blue jeans in the bedroom more important than that lamp she needs for reading?
The exercise helps girls to distinguish needs from 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.

Celebrate!

Girl Scouts at all levels are planning a year of special activities. “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 has invited 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 has prepared special baskets for baby girls born in local hospitals on that day.

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

“We’re erecting historical displays at libraries and museums throughout the region, says Kocol.”
While no one can say life is perfect for modern-day U.S. women, who face a whirlwind of conflicting ideas about their roles in society, one can say they have more opportunities now than ever before. Skills gained through Girl Scouts are helping many women to seize those opportunities.

“As we kick off the next century of Girl Scouting, we’re excited about what the future holds,” says Kocol. “We’re clearly focused and ready to go.”

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