Jillian Cooper, 13, and her Girl Scout troop are looking forward to a trip this fall to Savannah, Ga., to visit the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts of the USA in 1912.
And they’re going with the help and blessing of her church, East Ridge United Methodist in East Ridge, Tenn.
As the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrate their 100th anniversary, many United Methodist churches like East Ridge are celebrating right along with them. Since the beginning, United Methodist churches have supported the Girl Scouts, serving as nurturing communities to local troops as they follow the Girl Scout mission: “to build girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”
“When people think of Girl Scouts, they think of the uniforms and the cookies, but it is so much more,” said Mary Vitek, CEO of the San Jacinto (Southeast Texas) Council of the Girl Scouts, and a member of Westminster UMC in Houston.
“Girl Scouting shows girls they can do anything they want, if they put the initiative forth,” said Earnestine Nelson, a Scouting Ministry Specialist who leads troops at Warren Memorial United Methodist in Atlanta.
Juliette Gordon Low was looking for a purpose for her life when she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England. Inspired, she made a historic telephone call to a friend, saying, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”
On March 12, 1912, Low gathered 18 girls to register the first troop of American Girl Guides. The name of the organization was changed to Girl Scouts the next year. From the beginning, Low brought girls of all backgrounds together, encouraging them to explore the outdoors, to develop self-reliance, and to equip themselves as homemakers, good citizens and professional women.
By 1920—the year that women won the right to vote in the U.S.—there were nearly 70,000 Girl Scouts nationwide.
Today, the Girl Scouts boasts 3.2 million members—2.3 million girls plus 890,000 adult members, most of them volunteers—making it the largest organization for girls in the world. The program is open to girls ranging from kindergarten through high school age.
The United Methodist Church’s connection dates to the very beginning. A friend of Low’s, Jessamine Flowers, started the second Girl Scout troop in the U.S. in 1913 at what is now Hyde Park United Methodist in Tampa.
According to figures tallied by the denomination in 2005, there are about 27,000 United Methodist churches in the U.S. that host Girl Scout troops. An estimated total of 127,000 girls participate in the troops meeting at those churches.
“That makes us one of the largest sponsors of the Girl Scouts in the U.S.,” said Larry Coppock, national director of Civic Youth Serving Agencies/Scouting for the General Commission on United Methodist Men (GCUMM).
The next century
To mark the anniversary, many congregations observed Girl Scout Sunday in worship on March 11, including Trinity United Methodist in Alexandria, Va. At the service, the Rev. Phyllis Earley showed off the sash she wore as a Junior Girl Scout.
“The girls laughed at some of the badges,” she said, including the now-defunct “Gypsy” badge, featuring a pole and a bandanna.
Much has changed since Ms. Earley was a Scout. Girls can still earn popular badges like Cook, Naturalist and Athlete, but can also choose from new ones like Product Designer, Digital Movie Maker, Customer Loyalty and even “Science of Happiness.”
Girl Scouts continue to sell cookies—lots of them, more than 207 million boxes to date—but now leaders use the annual cookie sales to teach entrepreneurship, selling skills and financial literacy.
Girls still progress through ranks, starting as Daisies (ages 5-6) and advancing through Brownies (7-8), Juniors (8-11), Cadettes (11-14) and Senior Girl Scouts (ages 14-17), but now they can also opt to get involved without joining a Scout troop, through camping, travel programs or special events.
The organization has also created new ways to reach underserved girls, with programs like Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which organizes troops for girls whose mothers are incarcerated. “The idea is to rebuild the relationship between a girl and her mother, and ultimately to reduce the risk of the daughter following in her mother’s footsteps,” said Ms. Vitek.
While the Girls Scouts remains a secular organization, the national organization last year added a new award, the “My Promise, My Faith” pin, which invites Scouts to explore the Girl Scout Law through the lens of their own faith communities. United Methodist Girl Scouts can also earn religious recognition at each rank, such as the “God and Me” and “God and Church” awards. Some churches tie the activities for the awards to their confirmation programs.
Advocates for girls
The national Girl Scouts of the USA has also marked the anniversary by advocating for girls, declaring 2012 “The Year of the Girl” and launching a campaign to encourage girls who want careers in science, technology, business and industry.
There are 50 million former Girl Scouts; a recent survey found that about 60 percent of female members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are former Scouts, as are 53 percent of all women business owners.
Ms. Earley says she feels Girl Scouts helped shaped her in positive ways.
“Through the nurturing and mentoring of the Scout leaders . . . I learned new skills that I wouldn’t have learned in other places,” she said. Ms. Earley wasn’t an avid reader as a youngster, but a badge relating to reading encouraged her to read more.
Scout leaders say the value of the program endures well beyond the “cookies, camping and crafts” that Scouts enjoy.
“Girls learn to work with others,” said Ms. Vitek. “They can find out what they’re passionate about, for service or as a career. They get very meaningful leadership experiences.”
Many United Methodist churches simply provide space for Girl Scout troop meetings. But when congregations incorporate troops into the life of the church, Mr. Coppock says, Scouting can turn into an effective form of outreach and evangelism.
“I know of at least five families that joined the church through Girl Scouting,” said Allison Bishop, leader of the Cadette and Senior troops at East Ridge, which averages 130 in worship on Sundays. Her family is one of them. After her daughter, Madeline, 15, became involved in Scouting, they joined the church.
“I actually saw a church that was not just saying they were going to go out and do things, but they were doing it,” said Ms. Bishop. “Church members have praised the girls, they’ve bought their cookies, they’ve helped with fundraising projects, and they’ve given them service projects to do when they needed them.”
The Rev. Tom Long saw that happen at his church, First UMC in Vernon, Texas. The troop is new to the church, but already it’s led at least one family to join the church.
He also sees the church’s Girl Scout troop as a ministry. Volunteers pick up the girls from school in church vans and bring them to the church for meetings. “The church serves as a safe, healthy environment for girls who need a place to go after school,” he said.
Mr. Coppock encourages lay leaders and clergy to find ways to make deeper connections with their Girl Scout troops.
“Go to the award ceremonies,” he said. “Visit and meet the parents and invite them into the life of the church. Cultivate relationships with parents and youth, and not just on Scout Sunday.”
Girl Scouts is also one outreach ministry that often pays churches back, in the form of willing hands. At East Ridge, the Girl Scouts support church food drives and help with projects around the church. Working toward her Silver Award—the highest award for Cadettes—Jillian Cooper is currently remodeling a storage room for materials for Sunday school teachers. At First UMC Vernon, Scouts planted flowers outside of the church while working on a merit badge.
“It’s just a win-win all around,” said Mr. Long.