Friday, August 12, 2016

Hear It from a Girl Scout Leader: How to Inspire “Older” Girl Scouts

Journeys. I have had so many of them over my years as a Girl Scout and then as a Girl Scout volunteer. When I was in elementary school, like so many young girls growing up in the 1960s, I was a Girl Scout. I still remember my leader: Mrs. Bea Pennisi. She was a wonderful woman who embodied the Girl Scout spirit. Sadly, I did not go further than Cadettes, but, as a result of my experience as a Girl Scout, I knew I wanted the same for my daughters—I wanted them to be part of an activity that was "all girls." Participating in girls’ sports provides an option, however if you don't like sports or you are not athletic, you are out of luck. Girl Scouts is something every girl can be a part of.

In 1999, when I attended kindergarten orientation for my older daughter, representatives of our local Girl Scout association were present. They advised that the only way to ensure my daughter would be placed in a troop would be to volunteer to lead one. I am a mother of four and a practicing attorney—before committing to lead a Girl Scout troop, I had to seriously consider how I would be able to do it. One of my neighbors wanted to get her daughter into a troop as well so we decided to work together. Who knew our journey would last 13 years and our friendship even longer! The "roadmap" we used for my older girls became a guide for my younger girls' troop. However, I had to adapt as Girl Scout programming changed to Journeys. In addition to the challenge of new requirements, my troop included a very eclectic group of young women—athletes, theater kids, "cool girls," quiet girls, and "nerds."  Although they were not part of the same friend groups in school, when they came together in Girl Scouts, they respected and supported each other. It was expected of them.

Now my personal journey as a troop leader has come to an end. After more than 17 years as a troop leader, I’ve recently seen the girls in my younger daughter's troop graduate from high school. Soon they’ll be headed to college. All the girls have earned or will have earned their Girl Scout Gold Award. (Yes, the "Golden Girls of Troop 520" featured in an earlier blog post are mine!)  All 12 of the girls in my older daughter's troop also earned the Gold Award before graduating from high school and, as of a couple of weeks ago, all are now college graduates. I am honored to have been a part of the lives of all of these young women. I am so very proud of them.

Many people have asked me how I did it—how did I keep them together so long? Good question! Let's be honest, there is tremendous pressure on these young women and serious competition for their time. Unless they are getting something out of it, Girl Scouts will be the first activity they "drop" when they need some free time. It was my goal to ensure they viewed Girl Scouts as a priority rather than just "something else to do." When they were Girl Scout Daisies, Brownies, and Juniors, we were able to meet right after school. It was easy. As they entered middle school, that was no longer an option. In addition, Girl Scouts now had to compete with their other extracurricular activities as well as their school work and family obligations. In high school, the time pressures became even greater. My girls were involved in many activities. Every girl played at least one varsity sport and some, two and three! Some danced, some played an instrument or two, some worked. I needed to be flexible with respect to meeting times and locations. As they matriculated to Girl Scout Seniors and Ambassadors, there was even more competition for their time. There were SATs and ACTs to be prepared for and taken, college applications that needed to be completed, obligatory school work, team practices, and even a boyfriend or two who required attention! But just as any other activity they were involved with, Girl Scouts required a commitment of all involved—a commitment by parents to get their daughters to meetings and step up when adult help was required, a commitment by the girls to attend meetings and actively participate, and, of course, my commitment to the girls to be prepared and responsive to their needs.

Early on, I got their parents involved. I would meet parents before our school year started with a calendar of meeting dates and an overview of our plans for the year. Prior to that meeting, I would solicit the girls' views and ideas. We would discuss field trips, activities, volunteer opportunities, and the like, and plan our year around things they wanted to do and participate in. We embraced social media early on. We had our own photo-sharing site, Facebook group, and instant messaging group. Another way we stayed connected was by meeting year-round. During the school year we would meet twice a month and during the summer we would meet once a month. Our summer meetings ensured that Girl Scouts was a part of their extracurricular routine. Our summer meetings were never very formal, but always included at least one community service activity. We would hold a food drive, visit a local water park, or go to a neighborhood pool.

I recognized early on that I needed to be flexible. As they got older, our meetings became a safe space for them to talk. Some meetings I would put aside what we had planned so that they could use the time to talk about whatever was troubling them. My girls were not fans of the Journeys, however we made them work for us by doing things we enjoyed while doing the Journey requirements. For example, the girls’ love of cooking complemented the requirements of the Sow What? Journey. We sampled foods at various fast food chains and neighborhood restaurants, studying the nutritional values of each menu. We baked cookies for veterans, volunteered at a local church cooking for the homeless, held our own version of Chopped using locally grown ingredients, and baked bread to share with neighbors. We created a cookbook featuring locally grown ingredients and earned the Locavore badge while completing our Take Action project. This set the stage for their Gold Award projects.

The “road to gold” is not an easy one. We discussed earning the Gold Award over many meetings. My recommendation was to choose a project that they were passionate about. Once a girl came up with a project, I would meet with her individually to help her flesh out her idea. I encouraged each girl every step of the way, regularly asking how she was doing and how the project was progressing. I also encouraged their families to support them without interfering or trying to take control. The skills a girl develops in connection with earning her Gold Award will last her a lifetime. She must identify a need and come up with a project. She must be organized and willing to lead. Among other skills, she learns how to prepare a budget, how to solicit volunteers to assist her, and to give instruction to those volunteers about what she would like them to do. She also learns how to prepare written materials relevant to the project. She learns how to advocate for herself and her ideas as she presents her project to a review board to determine if the project has merit. Then she must complete the project, keeping track of the time she has dedicated to the endeavor. It is a lengthy journey but as my girls will tell you, it was well worth the effort.

As our last year in Girl Scouts was winding down, the girls thanked me repeatedly for the experience (I did not need thanks; we shared the adventure); for helping them get into college (they did that without me!); for encouraging them to achieve their Gold Award (they did the work, I just cheered them on); however, I must thank Girl Scouts. Through Girl Scouts I had the opportunity to work with these amazing young women for the past 13 years. I am going to miss them as they begin their next life journey. Although, we are already planning our holiday break get-together, it won't be the same as meeting in my dining room on a Sunday night or in my basement sharing a pizza. They have touched my heart and, I believe, I have touched theirs. One of my troop moms said it best. She said "It's been a great ride, but it is, indeed, rather sad to see it end. It is really incredible that they stayed together, but that is clearly due to the fact that you...made it lots of fun, gave them a voice in which activities to do, and made sure it was also educational and manageable rather than a burden." Is this the secret to keeping older girls? Perhaps. All I know is that I have been truly blessed!

Girls can do anything they set their minds to—especially when given the right opportunities. Start a troop today! Already an amazing troop leader? Share your story with us!