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Badge of Leadership: Today's Girl Scouts are taking action to better themselves, their communities


By Elaine D. Briseño, Albuquerque Journal
Updated 10:35 PM MT, Friday September 23, 2016
(Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gone are the days when being a Girl Scout meant mastering a needle or learning how to cook.

Girl Scouts today aims to transform its members into leaders.

Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails CEO Peggy Sanchez Mills said the focus has shifted from more traditional things like learning how to sew or cook, to teaching girls how to step up and take on roles and projects the put them in a position to solve problems and make decisions.

So now something like cooking would be learned in the context of having a career in that field or owning a catering business. While the legacy badges representing the more traditional skill are still available, there’s now a whole line of financial literacy badges, including business owner, philanthropy, good credit and budgeting.

Girl Scouts of New Mexico has 4,000 girls and 1,800 volunteers, she said.

“We are trying to build courage,” Sanchez Mills said. “At about 12 or 13, girls start deferring to the guys. We are teaching them to be leaders whether in a job, an advocacy role or in their own family.”

She said the tradition of selling cookies is still a major activity and fundraiser for the Girl Scouts, but even that has evolved. The program helps develop leadership skills by teaching the Scout how to set goals, make decisions, talk to people, develop business ethics and manage money.

Girls are asked to set goals for the amount of cookies they want to sell. They then figure out how much money that will earn for them.

Sanchez Mills said there is nothing more representative of this shift in the organization than the Gold Award, the most prestigious honor a Girl Scout can earn. They do that by coming up with Take Action Projects. The projects must have an impact in their communities even after their involvement ends.

“We ask them ‘What are you doing in the community to take action and make the world a better place?'” she said. “They have to implement it in a way that it will exist even when they go away.”

Girl Scout Isabel Rodriguez earned her Gold Award by creating an outdoor classroom for students at Nava Elementary School is Santa Fe about three years ago. Both her parents have been teachers at the school since before she was born and she herself was a students there. She transformed an area between two classroom after applying for and receiving grants.

A troop of girls in Albuquerque is earning Gold Awards through their work with Albuquerque Rescue Mission, which works with the homeless population. The mission uses a former jail space on the West Side of Albuquerque to house its homeless families at night. The girls have worked more than 700 hours to make the shelter more welcoming by adding books, toys and educational materials and by painting murals.

“When the homeless come into this shelter, we want them to feel like someone cared about them,” said Dr. Rosalie Multari, troop leader of Girl Scout Troop 47. “We want them to remember what it feels like to have a home.”

Sanchez Mills said Girl Scouts is also more proactive with social issues. While the organization never came out against members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community, she said it now openly welcomes them, acknowledging their sexuality.

“Today we are more likely to take a stand on something like this,” she said.

The Girl Scouts, she said, also tackle serious subjects such as sexual abuse and rape, holding workshops on what is and is not appropriate touching.

While there is a more concerted effort to raise leaders, Sanchez Mills said the Girl Scouts has always had a progressive spirit, an example set by founder Juliette Gordon Low. The Southern belle started the organization in 1912, when women could not even vote, in hopes of giving girls the skills they needed to “meet their world with courage, confidence and character,” according to the Girl Scouts website.

“Girl Scouts really gave me my voice and my confidence,” Haist said. “I really feel it was instrumental in teaching me how to get up and take the lead.”

In elementary school, Janet Haist and Barb Johnson signed up to be Girl Scouts, not realizing that decision would impact and shape their lives for the next 50 years.

Johnson retired from the New Mexico Corrections Department and Haist is a retired teacher and assistant principal. Both women were Girl Scouts through high school, spending many of their summers camping.

They each continued their involvement with Girl Scouts by becoming camp counselors in college. Through this all, they forged powerful friendships with other girls in Senior Troop 390.

“When we were in our 40s we decided to have a reunion for our Girl Scout friends,” Haist said. “Twenty-two women showed up and we went to a house by a lake.”

The year was 1998 and decades of friendship fortified by a love for Girl Scouts have kept most of these women coming back every year.

“Quite frankly, we enjoy each other,” Johnson said. “It’s so relaxing. There is no pretense. It’s rejuvenating for all of us. We spend a lot of time laughing and singing.”

They have jokingly named themselves the Wild Women. During one of their many gatherings they were being a little too rowdy for someone near the camp who remarked about their group calling them “those wild women.” The women knew the remark wasn’t meant as a compliment. But they didn’t care.

“We embraced it as a collective way of describing our group,” Johnson said. “We found it hilarious.”

Their reputation grew, unbeknownst to its members, over the years. They realized the group had become somewhat of a legend during a recent Girl Scout camporee where hundreds of girls gathered to camp. A leader from a troop of high schools girls approached Johnson and Haist.

“She said ‘You are the Wild Women? My girls are going to want to meet you,'” Johnson said. “When they met us, they were literally jumping up and down. When I left, I told Janet ‘Did you feel like a rock star?'”

And while they may not be rock stars, these wild women were the trailblazers for the future generation of Girl Scouts, almost all of them becoming leaders. Among them are two doctors, a lawyer, librarians, educators and most famously Janet Napolitano, who served as governor of Arizona and secretary of Homeland Security. The women are a representation of the mission of today’s Girl Scouts.

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