by Julie Bookman
Girl Scouts Together – it has always been their song, their promise. To become confident, courageous and young women of character who go on to lead – that has been their mission from the get-go.
The Girl Scouts, founded here in Georgia by Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low, has been winding the old trails rocky and long, hither and yon, for 100 years now. March 12 marks the specific centennial observation of the nation’s largest girl-serving organization, but celebration activities are on tap throughout this year.
Much as Boy Scouts around the world visit the home of their founder Robert Baden-Powell in London, Girl Scout troops from near and far regularly visit the elegant Juliette Gordon Low home in downtown Savannah to honor their organization’s founder.
The Girl Scouts – boasting 3.2 million members in this country alone, including 42,000 active girls in the Atlanta region plus 18,000 volunteers such as troop leaders – has come a long way. Yet the organization has also stuck close to a chief intent: to prepare girls to be kind, respectful and caring; to instruct them to protect the Earth; to help them become bold, adventurous, and well-rounded women who will be leaders.
“I’ve never had another career besides working for the Girl Scouts,” says Beth Messer, director of Girl Leadership Experience for the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, the council governing a 34-county territory. “I think that’s because I believe so strongly in the organization and what it stands for.”
One of the things she most loves about Girl Scouting: The girls themselves, only advised by their leaders, choose and plan their activities, from small events such as marching in parades, to every detail of camping trips and other adventures, including foreign travel for older Girl Scouts.
The Girl Scouts were all about “girl power” and “going green” ages before those notions became part of our national dialogue, points out Shana Corey, author of the new Here Come the Girl Scouts! picture book (Scholastic, $17.99). In this wonderfully researched and illustrated (by Hadley Hooper) 40-page volume, we learn that Gloria Steinem, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and journalist Lisa Ling are among more than 50 million American women who were once Girl Scouts. Notes Steinem on the book’s jacket: “We all have a place at the campfire. It was the Girl Scouts who taught me that first.”
If one pokes around asking about the Girl Scouts’ history in these parts, one is likely to be directed toward Margaret Paschal, a lifelong Decatur resident who has been an active Girl Scout for a whopping 59 years. Paschal was a Brownie at age 7 and remained a Girl Scout through high school. She later served in many volunteer roles, including troop leader. For the past 42 years, Paschal has worked for various Girl Scout councils that eventually became Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta.
Paschal has held a number of positions, but today is “volunteer helpline adviser,” which she describes as “a cross between reference librarian and customer-service representative.” Basically, she says, “if you have question about Girl Scouts, ‘ask Margaret.’ ”
One “life-changing moment” springs to mind when she’s asked to reflect on her rich Girl Scout history. When a senior in high school, Paschal says, “I chosen to represent my troop on Senior Planning Board, a council-wide committee of girls in grades 9-12 who made plans and discussed issues for the Seniors in our council. I arrived at the first meeting and discovered it was racially integrated. Whoa!” This was September 1962, and Georgia was strictly segregated at the time.
“I had never been to school with or played with an African-American,” Paschal recalls. “I had never seen an African-American Girl Scout. But in this room, no one said a word about color or race, so it was obviously OK for these young women to be there. We sat together, talked together, even rode in a car together, and nothing terrible happened! They wore the same uniform I did, and were warm and funny – and just like me! What a gift the Girl Scouts had given me: the knowledge that these Girl Scouts with dark skins were just as much my sisters as Girl Scouts who looked more like me. I knew then, at 17, that my family was wrong about segregation and that the issue of civil rights was really about doing the right thing and treating people the way they should be treated.”
Someone who is a bit greener on the Girl Scout path is Sammi Riemersma of Cumming. She is troop leader of Brownie Troop No. 29339, comprised of 10 second- and third-graders, including daughter Rachel.
She was not gung-ho about becoming a leader, but Rachel had her heart set on being a Brownie. So Rachel’s mom found herself sitting at meetings (first in Roswell, then a year later when the family moved to Cumming), only to hear that there would be no troop if no one stepped up. So she caved. Both times.
“I grew up in Augusta, where I was not a Girl Scout,” Riemersma recalls. “My sister was a Girl Scout and my brother was a Boy Scout, and I don’t think there was room in the schedule for my parents to run me back and forth.” She remembers the collapsible cups that her older sister Rhonda got to use for camping trips.
Fast-forward some 35 years. That’s when Riemersma became a Girl Scout for the first time, just as daughter Rachel got her Brownie uniform. Riemersma is mother to three children and stepmom to two other grown children. She also works as a public accountant, so doesn’t have much spare time. She did wonder if she could give adequate time to troop leadership, which she estimates takes about 10 hours per week. She worried about the sacrifice her involvement would mean to the rest of the family. Having troop meetings at her home, where the troop also had a recent sleepover, helps curb travel and meeting-location coordination time.
“My feeling is that any of us who has achieved any level of success in life are where we are because someone took the time to invest in us,” Riemersma says. “Girl Scouts is one of my opportunities to do the same for others. It feels much like a part-time job. The benefits package for this job, though, are hugs, smiles, and the satisfaction of knowing that I’m making a positive difference in the life of a child. It’s truly rewarding to see the girls light up as they learn about and experience new things.”
One thing her Brownies have learned thus far: the proper way to fold an American flag, a requirement toward earning their Citizenship badge. Upcoming troop goals include a roller-skating outing and an overnight camping trip at a nearby Girl Scout camp – hopefully with collapsible cups!
Being a troop leader “stretches me as a person and as a mom to manage both career and family,” Riemersma says. “But it’s not without its rewards.” Her involvement in Girl Scouts has helped her make friends in her new Forsyth County home.
At the moment, the Brownies led by Riemersma and assistant troop leader Lynne Hughes are busy bees buzzing about with their cookie sales, which help the young girls learn money-management and customer-service skills. “Our girls have been very, very excited to sell. They love the opportunity.”
Even those with no links to Girl Scouts are apt to know that cookie season is upon us. As a new year begins, there are Girl Scout cookies to purchase in support of the organization – from favorite Thin Mints and the rich and chunky Samoas (try one after zapping it in the microwave for just five seconds), to the all-new Savannah Smiles, a lemony wedge touted as the “official 100th anniversary” confection. Until the middle of March, you can snap up six Girl Scout cookie varieties from the eager and smiling faces of all levels of Girl Scouts, which also include Cadettes (grades six through eight), Seniors (ninth and 10th grades), and Ambassadors (11th and 12th grades).
Today, one box of Girl Scout cookies costs $3.50, a far cry from when this reporter trudged through thick snow drifts in rural Pennsylvania to sell them for 50 cents a box (as if her very life depended on it).
Gwinnett County’s Troop 1717 of Lilburn, with a pre-order of 14,429 boxes of cookies, seems to be the leader of the pack this year. Led by LaShun Robinson, Troop 1717 is an especially large “multi-level” troop, with Girl Scouts from Daisies to Ambassadors in its mix. Of the 88 girls in the full troop, 72 of them sold cookies, with most selling several hundred boxes. Once booth sales are added, Troop 1717 aims to sell upward of 17,000 boxes this season. That will earn the troop about $10,000. Was there particularly strong motivation this year to earn “cookie dough” ?
“Yes,” says Robinson, “but these girls are motivated to begin with and always raise funds for some kind of summer trip.” Last year, this troop sold 13,358 boxes, which brought in some $8,700. “My troop always sets goals, and this year they wanted to attend the Girl Scouts’ ‘Rock the Mall Sing-a-Long’ ” on June 9 on the National Mall in Washington.
Robinson was a Girl Scout herself for seven years of her Indiana girlhood. Mom to two daughters (now in high school and college), she’s been a troop leader, as well as cookie chair, for the last 13 years. She is also a service unit director, overseeing 15 troops in the Lilburn area. She also works full time as a clinical psychologist.
“Every year I have always told my daughters that they don’t have to be Girl Scouts, but I will still be a Girl Scout leader,” she says. “I do it because it is rewarding to me. It’s my way of pulling into the lives of girls and giving back to my community.” It helps that her husband Jimmy is supportive; he even built her a “Girl Scout project room” in the basement of their Lawrenceville home.
Over the past century, “it has become apparent that Girl Scouts is not just a nice activity, but it’s necessary,” Beth Messer adds. “It helps to prepare girls for the future. For today’s girls, the obstacles are so much greater than yesterday. There are so many things they can trip over, or problems they may have to face. But on the other hand, there are so many opportunities now. And Girl Scouts can open many doors for girls.”
That, you could say, is her song.
Eva Steinberg, 16, is a junior at Paideia School and lives in Virginia-Highland. She started as a Daisy 12 years ago and recently reached the Girl Scouting level of Ambassador. In a typical cookie season, she sells between 150 and 200 boxes of cookies.
Eva’s “favorite thing about Girl Scouts is being able to hang out with girls who don’t go to my school and whom I wouldn’t see otherwise, as well as the activities we do.” She calls her leader, Harriet Ruskin, “an amazing cook” who “is always happy to help and knows a lot about many things.” As far as Eva’s best Girl Scouting memory ever? “It hasn’t happened yet, but this summer we’re going to Greece, which is sure to be a highlight.”
Jeannie Goodwin, of Roswell, mom to three grown sons and five grandchildren, still holds tight to “so many great memories” of her six years in Girl Scouts, including her time as a Junior Girl Scout in the 1950s in Bellaire, Texas.
On one troop outing, she remembers the girls brought bedrolls – “no one had sleeping bags back then” – and spent the night in a church. “The next day we must have done many things but my most vivid memory is a hike in the woods and drinking from a beautiful stream the clear, cold mountain water. I often think about that and our current situation of rampant water pollution.” Another camping trip took her troop to a farm. “We slept in our bedrolls in a barn. Over the night it got so cold you could not move in your own bedroll or you would lose your warm spot!” She also remembers makeshift ways of cooking, such as using “buddy burners” fashioned from large tin cans, and another slow-cook method of digging a hole in the ground; each girl would bring a can of stew-type ingredients to help create one big “Girl Scout Stew.”
Goodwin also remembers the mosquito net she had to set up over her bed in a tent at a lake camp, and her chance at that camp to try a canoe: “For the rest of my life, I wanted a canoe!” she says. The camp was called Camp Arnold, and even though she was there more than a half-century ago, she can still sing the camp song.
Karen Ceesay, a graduate of Spelman College who today lives in Southwest Atlanta, earned her troop’s Top Cookie Seller patch two years running: in 1979 and 1980 in a suburb of Philadelphia.
“Yes, I still brag about it!” Ceesay says. “I have fabulous memories of my time as a Brownie and Girl Scout. I loved my meetings, as well as camp.” But cookie time was a big deal because both her parents got in on the action and took ordering forms to their workplaces. “Our dining room became Cookie Central and no one could stop by without buying at least two boxes.”
Another thing that Ceesay, now mom to a 7-year-old son, won’t ever forget is the Brownie song. She sings it over the phone, in a pretty voice:
“I’ve got something in my pocket, it belongs across my face.
I keep it very close at hand, in a most convenient place.
I’m sure you couldn’t guess it if you guessed a long, long while.
So I’ll take it out and put it on, it’s a Great Big Brownie smile!”