“The power of the cookie,” Brian Newberry calls it, that magical capacity of a box of Thin Mints to make someone’s day.
Or to transform a young girl’s future.
The Girl Scouts are doing both, and they’re doing it better in Spokane than in most places.
Newberry should know. Years ago, he was stationed on an airbase in the desolate mountains of Kyrgyzstan when the cookies arrived.
Newberry was grateful, partly because they tasted great, but mostly because someone cared enough to send them halfway around the world.
The Scouts were at it again last weekend at Clear Lake, offering smiles and Samoas to members of the military and their families. They were sent by none other than Newberry, a former wing commander at Fairchild Air Force Base who’s now the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.
More than ever, Newberry realizes that the power of the cookie is greater than he’d ever realized.
“I’ve bought a lot of Thin Mints in my life, but I didn’t realize the good I was doing,” Newberry said last week. “Last year I signed over $34,000 worth of college scholarships – when you buy cookies from that older girl, you’re sending that girl to college.”
One of them is Miranda Reed, a recent Mead High School graduate who learned a lot through scouting, not the least of which is the “confidence to talk to people and look them in the eye and talk to them.”
Some of those conversations happened in the hallways at Mead, where reactions usually morphed from, “Why are you still doing selling cookies in high school?” to “I wish I would have joined the Girl Scouts.”
Thinking outside the box
On a conference table in Newberry’s office sit three boxes of cookies and a cellphone.
He considers the symbolism, then talks about the Girl Scouts as a place “where girls can learn courage, confidence and character and let their voices be heard.”
Newberry also talks about “challenging times” for many organizations: the “disintegration of family” and the capacity of cellphones and social media to cleave relationships rather than build them.
Attrition is highest when girls reach fourth and fifth grade, the age when many discover social media and lose something else.
“Some kids think that Girl Scouts isn’t as cool as when you’re little,” Reed said. “They don’t have people in their ear, telling them what they think is cool.”
The downward spiral isn’t new for many youth organizations and sports leagues. Fifteen years ago, the Girl Scouts of the USA had 2.9 million members; now it has 1.7 million.
The group is also getting undercut by the Boy Scouts of America, which now is admitting girls.
However, it’s still cool to be a Girl Scout in the Inland Northwest, where membership ticked up 1 percent this year, to 3,324. Only 16 chapters out of 111 nationally can say that.
It starts with recruiting.
Girl Scouts sell cookies in the spring. In the fall they sell an idea that seems old-fashioned to many people these days: joining an organization that’s bigger than themselves.
“Now is the time,” said Newberry, whose organization covers 29 counties.
“Troops are forming right now,” said Newberry, who also is a member of the Spokane Public Schools board of directors.
Recruiting is focused on schools and online, but also through innovations like a mobile STEM lab that reaches from the Cascades to the Clearwater.
“That opens up a world of possibilities that a lot of girls don’t see themselves in,” said Jessica Tennant, director of philanthropy for the region. “They get to meet role models who are STEM professionals.”
The need for role models is also great in Spokane, as Renee Smock discovered years ago.
Now the council’s chief of mission delivery, Smock saw a need in her northeast Spokane neighborhood, where many girls “didn’t know what they were good at, had been pushed aside in school and didn’t have a supportive family.”
“Girl Scouts was the thing that changed the lives of some of those kids,” Smock said.
‘Learning not to quit’
Few are more remarkable than Reed, who embarked on her Girl Scout adventure as a Brownie in the second grade and carried it all the way to graduation from Mead High School.
She did most of the heavy lifting herself, selling enough cookies to pay for most of her education at Eastern Washington University.
Reed also won a pair of Chase Youth Awards for community service – including delivering $10,000 worth of supplies to the region’s firefighters – along with the highest honor in Girl Scouts, the Gold Award.
“I was known as the Girl Scout cookie girl,” said Reed, who also helped establish several new troops in the Mead area.
Reed was much more than that. She played basketball, ran cross country, qualified for nationals in debate and served on the Chase Youth Commission.
She also finished with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, which begs the question: How much of that was driven by Reed and how much credit goes to scouting?
“Selling cookies taught me how to talk to people and look them in the eye, and some people buy only because they want me to stop talking to them,” Reed said.
“Scouting kept me learning, and learning not to quit,” said Reed, whose cookie-selling days are over but not her involvement with Girl Scouts.
“I’m working here part-time,” Reed said.