Chicago area Girl Scouts 100 and thriving after changing with the times
Girl Scouts have always been pioneers of sorts, forming to empower the fairer sex at a time when women were still considered second-class citizens under the law.
But a battle to remain relevant had to be waged, with the national board deciding in 2005 that major changes needed to take place if the organization's mission of "building girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place" was to continue.
Seven years and one significant regrouping later, the Girl Scouts are celebrating their 100th anniversary better positioned than ever, with the Chicago-area council playing an especially prominent role in the drive to develop 21st century leaders.
Heading up local efforts is Maria Wynne, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. After seven local councils merged in 2008, the council became the nation's largest, with nearly 87,000 members in 245 communities.
"We prepare girls to be leaders and to make a difference," Wynne said. "Hopefully when they leave us, they will do phenomenal things and continue to change the world."
Besides a complete programming overhaul, one of the organization's initiatives has focused on increasing diversity. While Girl Scouts has long striven to attract members of all backgrounds, today's demographics hardly reflect those on March 12, 1912, when Juliette Gordon Low gathered 18 girls in Savannah, Ga., to register as the first troop.
So Wynne, a former Palatine resident and Microsoft executive, made it a priority to connect Hispanic girls to the opportunities of Girl Scouts.
Growing through diversity
The daughter of a Columbian mother, Wynne was largely raised in Bogota and said many immigrant parents don't know what scouting is, despite the worldwide presence of Girl Guides (the name for scouts outside the U.S.).
"Getting Girl Scouting known in the Hispanic community as an entrusted organization can be difficult," Wynne, of Chicago, said. "Sometimes there's even a stereotype that having 'troops' means we're a military organization."
Over the past three years, the council has diligently worked to increase its Hispanic membership by assigning staff to serve as troop leaders until a volunteer base can be built.
The council also formed relationships with faith-based organizations in various Latino and African-American communities across the 10-county territory. Though Girl Scouts isn't a religious organization, Wynne said parents become comfortable with their daughters joining due to affiliations with trusted entities.
The council's efforts appear to be working. Hispanic membership totaled 15,792 as of September 2011, up 808 girls from the prior year. Overall, about 18.2 percent of the council's nearly 87,000 girls report being Hispanic while 20 percent are black.
Targeted efforts to recruit the growing Hispanic population have taken place across the U.S., as well, resulting in a nearly 55 percent membership hike between 2000 and 2010. And last year, Mexican-American attorney Anna Maria Chavez was named the first person of color to lead Girl Scouts of the USA.
"Diversity of our membership has always been around, but there's been a very intentional focus the past few years," said Julie Somogyi, the Chicago council's director of integrated marketing and communications.
A time of transition
Minority initiatives have contributed to just part of Girl Scouts' transformation, however.
Girl Scouts consolidated more than 300 councils into about 110 nationwide to support the smaller groups at risk of folding and make the whole organization more cohesive.
The move also allowed funders to look at Girl Scouts differently, and soon foundations and corporations were willing to award sizable grants knowing they'd have a large-scale impact. Before, the scouts were more reliant on local businesses and cookie sales.
"That was not necessarily a happy time," Wynne said. "People don't like being told they have to merge, but we had to change how we did business. It was a time of transition, and there was a dip in membership in some areas."
Even more significant was the Girl Scouts' switch to an innovative two-tiered programming system, much of it tied to the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Dated and obsolete badges were eliminated while new badges — including Global Awareness, Adventure Sports, Stress Less and Environmental Health — were introduced. Scouts have more flexibility on how to achieve the badges and service opportunities are now emphasized.
Girl Scouts also started a new concept called Journeys, which are age-appropriate activity books that encourage girls to more thoroughly explore themselves and the topic.
At the local level, the council started Camp CEO, a highly selective six-day program that pairs 25 female executives with 25 teens.
In 2009, Girl Scouts opened Journey World in Chicago to offer a unique experiential learning space designed to inspire the next generation of civic and community leaders. On floors that simulate a city and the environment, activities include building small water purification systems to learn about pollution and taking out loans for a lesson on personal finance management.
Many programs also focus on the digital age and social media. The council, in collaboration with Motorola, started "Reality Check" after a Girl Scout study showed 79 percent of the girls who watch reality TV believe it's real. It teaches girls to become critical viewers of TV.
Helping to spread the message is Wheaton native Kasia Pilewicz, one of the final five contestants in season 16 of "America's Next Top Model." The council approached her about serving as a spokeswoman because of the integrity and positive attitude she displayed on the reality show.
"I did an (Internet) show and just talked about the power that you have by being yourself, because there's no one else like you," said Pilewicz, now working in New York. "I also teach the girls about looking up to role models in their own lives."
Moving forward, the Girl Scouts have declared 2012 as the "year of the girl" to focus national attention on girls and their needs. It's the foundation of a larger effort to break down societal barriers that hinder girls from leading and achieving success.
"We expect to move the needle on gender imbalance," Wynne said. "This is a move to encourage others to invest in girls, and we're preparing them to make the choices that will make them contributors to the economy."
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