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Community, coding and the cosmos: Girl Scouts focus on empowering girls

Kara Howard, 11, stands in her cadet vest with Girl Scouts of America at her home in Zillah, Wash. on Friday, August 3, 2018. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Kara Howard, 11, stands in her cadet vest with Girl Scouts of America at her home in Zillah, Wash. on Friday, August 3, 2018. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Emily Goodell Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. – Today’s Girl Scouts are coding, whitewater rafting and building robots.

“It’s not that it’s changed, it’s that it’s progressed to meet girls where they are,” said Nichole Wood, director of marketing and philanthropy for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, which serves more than 30 counties and 3,000 girls.

As American women seek a larger role in politics, fairer wages and an end to sexual harassment, the Girl Scouts see an opportune time to show some swagger in promoting their core mission: girl empowerment.

“What’s happening in society as a whole makes it all the more important for girls to have every possible opportunity to learn that their voice and opinion matter, and to have the courage and confidence to become who they want to be,” said Megan Ferland, CEO of the Seattle-based Girl Scouts of Western Washington.

One major challenge, she said, is to puncture some of the myths and stereotypes that affect public perceptions.

“People hear Girl Scouts and think, ‘Oh, those cute little girls that sell the cookies and make macaroni necklaces’ and that’s it,” Ferland said. “It is so much more than that.”

The Girl Scouts have about 1.76 million girls and 780,000 adult members – down from about 2.9 million girls and 900,000 adult volunteers in 2003. The Yakima area has 111 Girl Scouts spread throughout 12 troops, with an additional 78 girls across six troops in the Ellensburg area.

While the Boy Scouts decided last year to admit girls into all programs, the Girl Scouts’ parent organization, Girl Scouts of the USA, will not follow suit by admitting boys.

Lisia Howard, Lower Valley service unit manager who oversees troops in Grandview, Sunnyside and Zillah, said the Girl Scouts give participants a variety of activities and the ability to choose which activities to pursue.

“There’s more than one path to go down for Girl Scouts,” she said.

Take the cookie program, for example. Wood said is about more than just selling cookies: it helps girls learn about business, sales, marketing and money management.

“Other organizations say they’ll empower girls, but we give girls the tools to empower themselves,” Wood said. “Girls decide what activities, adventures and journeys they want to take, and the adults facilitate that.”

Howard said community service, a nationwide emphasis for the organization, is a large component of local troop activities. She said they partner with local food banks to create food drives, conduct pet food drives for elderly pet owners and collect stuffed animals for children during Christmas time.

New frontiers

This year, the local organization was one of 10 nationwide that received a grant to send two girls to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for a weeklong intensive space science workshop. It included funding for the girls to design an astronomy program for their local troops.

The experience was part of the girls working toward the organization’s top honor: the Gold Award, where girls identify an issue within the community, plan to solve it and complete a project to make it happen. The Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho have nine girls working to achieve the Gold Award this year. Sunnyside Girl Scout Mina Gatica plans to create a pantry at Sunnyside High School containing clothes, personal hygiene items, school supplies and other needed items the students may not have access to otherwise.

“I want to leave a legacy of kindness and generosity for others,” Gatica said in a letter about her project. “I was not treated nicely by people in my freshman year and I don’t want anyone else to feel like I did.”

In Ellensburg, the Nerdy Girls troop works to create a path for girls to join the male-dominated field of robotics. Sisters Parker and Greta Mayer co-founded the Nerdy Girls project as “an underground robot society, built by teen girls for teen girls.”

The girls spent almost two years developing a video game designed to help girls learn about robotics in a fun way. They also host weekly robot-building parties, create their own YouTube tutorials and have a competitive robotics team. Their work was featured in a seven-minute film documentary.

Diversity

Scouting organizations have experienced membership declines in recent years, for reasons ranging from busy family schedules to the lure of online games and social media. Girl Scouts has focused some recruitment efforts on encouraging girls from diverse backgrounds to join.

The organization has created more than 240 new troops over the past two years in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, which serve several thousand girls from Hispanic, African-American, Korean and other communities. Denise Nowack, who oversees the recruitment programs, said the Girl Scouts council in LA decided to cover basic first-year costs for the new troops, including membership fees and uniforms, to ease the financial burden.

Locally, Wood said the demographics of the troops typically reflect those of the area. However, to make sure that’s the case, they’re working on hiring a bilingual recruitment staffer to increase opportunities for Spanish-speaking girls. For girls in low-income households, Wood said the organization offers scholarships for membership and camps.

“We’re a girl-exclusive organization, but we’re also girl-inclusive,” Wood said. “If a girl wants to join, we will find a way to make sure she’s in a troop.”

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