Girl Scouts are learning to lead

Story highlights

  • Girl Scouts counter negative messages about girls
  • Cookies and nature are just two aspects of the appeal
  • The girls learn leadership through service

(CNN)I got so excited when my daughter touched a Madagascar hissing roach.

I wouldn't be so proud except she had been insisting for weeks that she wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't have to earn the bug badge on her Girl Scout Brownie troop's agenda this year.
Insects are gross. Yes, of course, bees are good for flowers, but no thanks on the badge she'd get for learning about bugs and other insects, said the 7-year-old, over and over.
My daughter is learning finance and business principles as she takes on more tasks for the annual cookie sales that fund her troop's activities, and now she's learning them in a 21st century way with mobile app capacity.
Along with Girl Scout troops around the country, hers is preparing to launch 2016 cookie sales this month. But here I was watching my daughter insist there's something she couldn't do: touch any insects on an upcoming troop trip.
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That's why I had guessed she would sit out the presentation by a Fernbank Museum insect expert, who had booked a private room on a recent Sunday to show us three female roaches and answer all our 12-member troop's questions.
Except my child surprised me, getting in line to touch the roach, asking questions about what insects eat and how they communicate -- and seeing that women can be insect experts (entomologists). Already she's stepping out of her comfort zone, because that's what the parent volunteers and the girls in her troop do. (Bugs are a type of insect, but not all insects are bugs, I learn.)
Girls are receiving messages from everywhere -- beauty magazines, reality television, social media, the toy industry and their friends -- about what girls can and "should" do. Those messages aren't always healthy, positive or empowering.
They certainly don't involve touching a roach.
Countering those messages are Girl Scout troop leaders, telling my daughter's troop through their twice monthly meetings chock-full of activities and camping trips that she is capable of more. Even more than her parents could imagine for her.
"There's a moral compass that comes with being a Girl Scout," says Sheryl Guyon, troop leader of West Seattle Troop 40766. "It teaches a girl to be self-confident and take care of herself, and it gives her a good group of friends."

'Courage, confidence and character'

Founded by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912, the Girl Scout mission of "building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place" seems more relevant in the lives of the two million Girl Scouts across the United States than ever. (Some 30,000 girls are on wait lists for local troops, due to a lack of available troop leaders.)
It's clear that Girl Scout alumnae go places. They include Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 15 of the 20 women in the U.S. Senate, more than half the 88 women in the U.S. House of Representatives, five of the six female U.S. governors and most female astronauts.
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In the private sector, former Girl Scouts include YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty; tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams; and journalists Katie Couric, Barbara Walters and Robin Roberts.
"I have studied girls and girls' development for 25 years now, and it's clear to me that there's no better place to be advancing girls' issues and engaging girls in a positive way than in the Girl Scouts," says Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a developmental psychologist and the Girl Scouts' chief girls expert. (She's head of the Girl Scouts' program development and research.)
"Our program engages girls in identifying community needs, coming up with resourceful solutions and implementing them in partnership with their communities," says Archibald. "They are stepping through the process of becoming productive problem solvers" and leaders.
Here's how some of those Girl Scout leaders and alumnae get started.

Girls get as much power as they can handle

From the moment a Girl Scout approached her to buy some cookies, Arlington, Texas, mom Rebecca Bichel knew she wanted her "somewhat shy" daughter to have the community and service opportunities that come from being part of a troop. Now 11, her daughter has been active in Scouts since she was a Daisy starting at age 5.
"The expectation from the beginning is that you give the girls as much power as they can manage and handle and leading the activities of the troop," says Bichel, now leader of Arlington's Troop 1803. "They can have conversations in a really safe space."
Early this year, a meeting on service — and what kinds of service they would do — turned into a discussion on bullying. "They talked about how it made them feel, and they took so much power from that conversation," she says. "They talked about how they could make changes and an activity this year that came out of that."
That meeting turned into a public art project, where the girls painted rocks with life-affirming, anti-bullying messages and left them in parks around town.

Service and community are important

For the girls who stick with Girl Scouts, the projects only get bigger as they get older.
Alina Guyon and Grace Gunlogson, both ninth graders in the West Seattle Troop, each earned the Girl Scout Silver Award for their recent service projects.
After learning that many girls in some developing nations don't get birth certificates, and therefore aren't counted, "I helped girls in developing nations get birth certificates," said Guyon, age 14.
She and her fellow Scouts collected funds to buy birth certificates and collected signatures to support the Girls Count Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 2014 to further support efforts to register girls at birth.
Gunlogson has focused her Silver Award project on getting Seattle children out into nature. "I'm still in the act of raising money and getting it done," said Gunlogson, age 14. "I'm also involved with an organization called O2, which gets kids backpacking and outdoors in the mountains. I taught them about being outdoors and climbing."

Cookies are a teaching tool

Don't forget the cookies. Those cookies are key for teaching goal setting, decision making, sales skills and money management. And now, girls are learning about online and mobile technology to sell even more cookies, lessons that could serve them well in the workplace. For many troops, cookie sales cover some or all the cost of their activities.
For Daisies in kindergarten and grade 1, their biggest job is to add up the price of cookies correctly and accept the word "no" when some people won't buy their cookies. Our troop also chose to give a portion of cookie earnings to charity, and the girls got to choose where that money will go.
As the girls get older, the cookie sale can be as big as the girls want it to be. For Alina and Grace, members of the top-selling troop in their town, the troop's saved earnings over three years funded trips to Europe and California (each girl chose which trip) for the troop last summer.
"You're putting yourself out there, and you can't be shy," says Grace. "And you're not just advertising or promoting cookies but the whole Girl Scouts. Another fun part of it is that people are not just interested in cookies, but in you and the whole Girl Scouts."
With the latest upgrade, millions of girls will add mobile capability to their sales pitches come cookie season early next year. They will be learning how to sell on the ground, where most sales still take place, and online, where much of the sales world is shifting.

Troops are as good as parents make them

There's some criticism that some troops aren't as invested in nature activities anymore. On the local level, some troops do more arts and crafts and less of the outdoor hiking, camping and cooking that are traditionally associated with the Scouts.
But that's on the parents. The girls often thrive in nature once they get out to a Girl Scout campground, but it's on troop leaders and parents to teach girls the Girl Scout methods of hiking, fire building and cooking over a fire.
All of us are volunteers, and those of us who don't know how to teach those skills can learn. Many Girl Scout campgrounds also have rangers, like one who debated the teepee method of campfire building versus his preferred log cabin method. (I only know the teepee method but it turns out the local council offers classes on building a fire and cooking over a campfire.)
The parents end up benefiting from scouting as well. After all, many of these girls are spending time with their parents.
Even parents who don't lead a troop tend to volunteer for various projects, whether it's teaching certain skills or asking their workplaces to open for Girl Scout events.
"It's incredible bonding time with my daughter," says Bichel, knowing her daughter will soon be at an age where she won't otherwise want to spend so much time with Mom.
"I know she doesn't always love having me as a troop leader every day, but I work a lot, and this is quality time with my daughter."
There's also a direct benefit for parents who would otherwise not be very social in the world.

Getting lost in the rain

"I'm naturally very introverted," says Tammy Van-Loan, a 19-year troop leader of Lakeland, Florida, Troop 154. "I like schedule and consistency, and to venture something unknown is just something I would never do before. Girl Scouts has helped me branch out and do the unknown."
Van-Loan can remember being terrified at her first camping trip with eight little girls, lost in the rain near the campground at night. (Once the girls stopped crying, she was able to lead them back to their campsite.)
Fast forward more than a decade: Her older daughter earned the Scouts' highest "Gold Award" honor for launching a Special Olympics softball league in their town. Her second daughter, a high school junior, is working on a project focusing on creating awareness about homeless kids in her school district for her Gold Award.
Van-Loan, who plans to step down after her younger daughter is done next year, is a true-green Girl Scout.
"I'm all about tradition with the Girl Scouts law, promise, the handshake, the motto of 'be prepared,' campfire cooking, trail walking, compass learning and knot tying. I've had the best time."