March 7 2012 12:00 AM

The Girl Scouts has a 100-year history of community involvement, activism and acceptance

Thin Mints, Tagalongs, Samoas, Do-Si-Dos: The annual sale of Girl Scout cookies is one of the few times of the year that communities pay attention to the organization, which is turning 100 years old this March. 

But a $9 million organization can´t live on cookies alone. 

“We find it really interesting that often people do think Girl Scouts is just cookies, camping, crafts and don´t think of it as a leadership organization,” said Janet Barker, CEO of Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan. 

Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan serves roughly 80,000 Girl Scouts throughout the state, and while selling cookies does teach young girls the “Five Skills in Daily Life” — goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethic — being a Girl Scout means much more. 

In the past century, Girl Scouts volunteered at hospitals, collected clothing, made toys and quilts and gathered food for the poor during the Great Depression. During World War II, Girl Scouts collected 1.5 million articles of clothing to send to refugees overseas, among other efforts. They embraced diversity, fought for civil rights, joined the war on drugs and grew into an organization of 3.2 million girls and adult volunteers. 

“(It’s been) 100 years of helping girls become confident and courageous and 100 years of girls doing community service," Barker said. “Taking action to make their world a better place is huge, and we´re still doing that.” 

At any time in their education, girls can join a troop in their area. The program begins with Daisies in kindergarten, then Brownies in first through third grade, Juniors in fourth and fifth grade, Cadettes in sixth through eighth grade, Seniors in ninth and 10th grade, and finally Ambassadors for 11th and 12th grade students. 

Barker said it’s most common for girls to stay with the program for at least five years, which still has a strong impact that girls may or may not realize in the future. 

“Girls are learning while having fun and being with their friends. These skills are going to carry with them for the rest of their lives,” she said. 

Controversies and misinformation

Outside of cookie sales, the only other time the Girl Scouts finds itself in the media is when it´s faced with criticism. CNN reported last month that Indiana State Rep. Bob Morris is refusing to acknowledge the organization’s 100th anniversary due to their “radical” agenda.

In January, CNN reported on a Colorado troop’s decision to allow a 7-year-old transgender child to join the troop last October. Since then, the website has campaigned to boycott the sale of Girl Scout cookies until its “issues are addressed.” The site is also claiming that incomes and donations from the sale of cookies help pay for association and membership fees to participate in abortion and homosexual advocacy groups, partnerships between Girl Scout Councils and Planned Parenthood clinics, salaries for Girl Scouts of the USA executive staff “who are leaders in the homosexual rights movement, and the movement of inclusion,” which states that they have been “hiding” transgender boys in groups.  

GSUSA’s current position on the transgender issue is that if a child considers herself a girl and is regarded as a girl by her family, she is welcome in a troop. 

Last week, Yahoo! News reported that St. Timothy  Catholic Church in Virginia has banned all troop meetings and prohibited the wearing of uniforms in its school because of the erroneous belief that the Girl Scouts are affiliated with Planned Parenthood. 

“Girl Scouts supports one organization: Girl Scouts,” Barker said. “Our sole purpose is to build girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place. As the world’s premier leadership development organization for girls, Girl Scouts does not support any other organization. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the sale of Girl Scout Cookies stay within our council — Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan — to support local Girl Scouts and volunteers. No money from the sale goes to Girl Scouts of the USA or any other organization.”

But Barker says it´s easy to see how these rumors have spread.

“Unfortunately, since the advent of the Internet, misinformation about Girl Scouts has proliferated, unchecked, for several  years,” she said. “While it is understandable that Internet articles may be of concern, it is important to note that the information is either false or a gross exaggeration.” 

As far as approaching issues like sexuality and birth control, Barker says the Girl Scouts has always been consistent.

“Our policy on sensitive issues remains as it as always been: Parents must give their prior written permission before any discussion of sensitive issues may take place in a Girl Scout setting,” she said. “Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan believes that decisions on sensitive issues such as sexuality, birth control and abortion are best left to girls, their families and their religious advisers.  GSHOM takes no position on such issues.

“Be assured that Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan teaches girls to make decisions with the guidance of their own families and religious advisors. Parents have control over what their daughters are learning in Girl Scouts.”

Not your grandmother´s Girl Scouts

Hilary Clinton, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow are former Girl Scouts, and First Lady Michelle Obama is now the National Honorary President of the Girl Scouts. 

According to Barker, 70 percent of women in a leadership role in the Lansing area were once Girl Scouts. Overall, 30 percent of women in the area were Girl Scouts.

Yet earning as many badges as possible is officially a thing of the past with a revamping of the program this past year. 

Outside of regular troop meetings, a catalog of programs and events is provided each year for Michigan troops. Events in Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and more cities throughout both peninsulas are available to all troops. Whether it’s a visual arts workshop or learning about the “Wonders of Water,” girls are provided with a variety of learning experiences.

“We have more than 300 programs that a girl can attend. Most people think that a girl is in a Girl Scout troop and that´s the only way she can participate,” Barker said.

Girls are welcome to participate in any program, whether they’re in a troop or not. 

Christal Renaud, of Troy, a troop leader of 16 years, took her troop of Senior Girl Scouts to try fencing this year. 

“One mom said, ‘My daughter would have never been able to do this without Girl Scouts.’ It gets girls to get out there and experience things they never would have done,” Renaud said. 

Although they’re still available, it’s not all about the badges. A list of 15 different traits to help girls learn leadership — including developing a strong sense of self, promoting cooperation and team building and identifying community needs — was developed last year. 

“They become more confident, become more secure with who they are, and give back to the community," Renaud said.

Girls now go on individual “journeys” through their years of Girl Scouting to combine with earning badges. Journeys focus on discovering skills and talents, connecting with others and taking action to make the world a better place.  

“You learn more about how your actions really do help the community around you, which is something that’s harder to grasp as a younger Girl Scout,” said Renaud’s daughter, Michelle. She participated in Girl Scouts through high school until she graduated in 2009 and has been a troop leader for three years for a group of second-grade Brownies. She has taken her troop caroling at a senior service center and had them make Build-a-Bears for children in the hospital.

“With Girl Scouts, I got the opportunity to experience so many different things and places that many people don’t get to, and I have grown from them.”

Girl Scouts Parade

11 a.m. Saturday, March 10
Parade begins on W. Allegan St. and ends at the Capitol around noon, with a singalong and afternoon activities. There will be a celebration and fireworks at Cooley Law School Stadium, beginning at 6 p.m.