As feminist groups and scouting traditionalists across the nation debate the legitimacy of the Boy Scouts of America’s move to recruit girls to join their ranks, Girl Scouts in southwest Kansas remains steadfast in its single gender commitment to girls and young women.

“Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) and Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are and have always been two very different organizations,” said Chandra Relph, Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland’s director of Mission Delivery based in Garden City. “Since the BSA, now called Scouting BSA, began recruiting girls to their program this year, there has been a lot of confusion and misinformation. We’re staffed at the local, state and national levels to answer questions as we continue to develop programs and activities that help girls become leaders and active citizens of the future.”

Relph said there is an ongoing perception that all scouting programs are basically the same. While there are some similarities, most everything done in Girl Scouts is designed with and for girls.

“Our programs are tailored to maximize impact by teaching them in a way they learn best,” she said. “In single gender spaces, girls are more apt to take healthy risks, try new things and take on expanded leadership roles.”


Building outdoor skills

Girl Scouts can earn badges in outdoor and high adventures through camping, mastering outdoor skills and developing an appreciation of nature. With camping beginning in kindergarten, the Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland (GSKH) own and operate three camp properties in Kansas, covering more than 400 acres.

“For many girls, Girl Scouts is their introduction to the true outdoors,” said Connie Bahl, manager of Girl Experiences — Outdoor & Higher Awards. “Our data tells us that 80 percent of girls said camping was their most memorable experience. Our sites include Starwoods Outdoor Center near Clearwater, Camp Four Winds at Leon and Camp Double E at Emporia. Each offers something different for every age level.”

Starwoods is GSKH’s premier outdoor property and has 16 different areas for day and overnight use. Campfires at Ceremony Island, nature and water-related activities, sports, camping, hiking, art projects, cookouts, astronomy, rock climbing, rappelling, and ziplines are some of the activities available.

A treehouse built on stilts highlights Four Winds. It also offers a compass center, activities building, platform huts, areas for primitive camping, a 40-acre lake and hiking trails. Double E is an 8.3-acre camp on the Neosho River just northwest of Emporia. It has two shelter houses, a gazebo, hiking trails and offers a variety of sporting options.

These sites are also available for rent to the general public.

“The girls choose age appropriate activities and adventures, as well as develop travel plans and lead the experiences to ensure they are girl-centered,” Bahl said. “Additionally, every year our Kansas Heartland Girl Scouts can travel throughout the United States and to countries across the globe. They raise the money and plan the trip utilizing the skills and leadership they’ve developed in Girl Scouts.”


Developing problem solvers

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has received a lot of attention in the last decade as many organizations are working to increase female interest and confidence in these male-dominated arenas.

“The gap between girls and boys starts around the age of 6 and can be closed with programs that are designed for girls,” Relph said. “Girls can earn badges in engineering, robotics, environmental science, cyber security and space science. Our STEM program is timeless as it helps the girls develop a lifelong interest in how things work, and it teaches them how to think like scientists, programmers and engineers. It’s hands-on, problem-focused and girl-led learning.”

Relph said that the Kansas Heartland council has purchased STEM kits that are available for troops to check out. Included are cheese making, night science, circuit building, static electricity, pop rockets, robot towers, technical sketching and sound and vibration.

“If girls want to learn to weld, use a sewing machine, make jewelry, change a tire or build a rocket, those activities are also in our STEM curriculum. This year, GSKH scouts are filming and editing video, advocating for issues they care about, designing and coding games and building their own rafts,” she said. “We’re now looking into aqua-robotics that will challenge the girls to build a fully operational LEGO robot that works under water.”


More than just cookies

For Lisa Cech, manager of GSKH Product Sales, cookies and the Fall Opportunity Sale (FOS) are more than just putting funds in a bank account for the girls and council. It’s an opportunity for them to develop expertise and confidence in five key areas: goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics.

“If a girl chooses to participate on our FOS or cookie program, we sit down with her to help her flesh out her individual sales goals, as well as her troop’s goal,” Cech said. “This goal-setting skill helps develop cooperation and team building skills that she can utilize throughout her life.”

Cech explained that the development of decision-making skills focuses on helping scouts decide how her team will spend their program proceeds. It gives each Girl Scout ongoing work and development in the areas of critical thinking and problems solving.

“We all know how important the ability to manage money is regardless of what age or station in life we are,” she said. “Our Girl Scouts take orders for goods and products, handle their customers’ money and gain valuable and practical life skills around the growing need for financial literacy.”

The ever-important people skills Girl Scouts learn include learning how to talk to, listen to and work with all kinds of people while selling. These experiences, according to Cech, can help girls develop healthy relationships and conflict-resolution skills that she can use today and in the future. Just as important is the opportunity for girls to learn business ethics.

“Throughout the product programs, Girl Scouts learn and practice honesty and responsibility," Cech said. "Her business ethics reinforce the positive values she’s learning as a Girl Scout. We emphasize customer service from the very beginning as that is a basic tenant of good business practices regardless of age.”

Since Girl Scouts and the cookie program are almost synonymous and Girls Scouts have been selling cookies for over 100 years, many people may not realize the Girl Scouts have a Fall Opportunity Sale that begins in early October and features such goodies as buffalo ranch pretzels, almond butter cups, seasoned dry roasted almonds, salsa mix with pepitas and peanut butter bears plus other snack treats. Prices run from $5 to $10 per item, and the 2018 sale begins Oct. 6 and runs through Nov. 30.

Cech said the Southwest Region, consisting of Greeley, Lane, Scott, Wichita, Finney, Gray, Hamilton, Haskell, Kearny, Grant, Morton, Stanton, Meade, Seward, Stevens, Clark, Ford, Hodgeman, Comanche, Edwards, Kiowa, Barber and Pratt counties, has a total of 80 troops. In 2017, girls in those counties sold 13,650 units, which also included magazines, tumblers and other household items. Finney County has approximately 95 girls in 14 troops that participate on the FOS program and were responsible for 2,398 sold units.

“To help girls stay relevant with today’s world, both product programs have a digital presence where girls and parents can choose to participate either in person or through technology,” Cech said. “They develop an online store front and then invite family and friends to support them and their troop through email, text, etc. Products are available through this secure digital store she manages. In 2018, GSKH earned $3.8 million to fuel adventures and service projects.”

The Girl Scouts also participate in The Share Program, which allows the Fall Opportunity Sale and cookie program customers the option of making a purchase that gives something back to others. Share Program donations are given to military members or to the Kansas Food Bank, which distributes food for hunger relief programs across Kansas.


Reaching across diversity

For Clarissa Carrillo, leader of Garden City’s Burmese Girl Scout troop and a membership outside recruiter, Girl Scouts provides the bridge that crosses ethnicities and provides a safe environment for girls to experience a world different from their native country and ethnic origin.

“Our Burmese troop is a combination of girls from Burma and Thailand who come from refugee families,” she said. “I like to call this group our international troop, and it has its own meeting space located in their apartment complexes. One of our biggest challenges has been the language barrier, which also made the process of getting our troop started take longer than normal.”

Carrillo said she, a translator and other scout leaders literally went door-to-door around apartment complexes explaining the Girl Scout mission and to see if parents would allow their daughters to participate in the program. By meeting with the families, Carrillo eventually received support and encouragement from the girls’ parents.

“The very first time we had a Girl Scout troop meeting, I had to go knock on doors again,” she said. “But now, every time they see my car come into their apartment complex, the girls come out running with so much excitement and desire to learn! They have learned to set up tents and other activities, but most of them enjoy doing experiments that are offered through our STEM program. They all seem to be very interested in science.”

Hia Aye, one of the oldest girls in the troop, likes “all of the learning and fun games we do” while friend El Wah Htoo, a sixth-grader, “loves everything about Girl Scouts!”

“Our mission is to help them get a bit of a Girl Scout experience,” Carrillo said. “We want them to learn they are all beautiful, strong girls. We want them to learn that as a G.I.R.L. they are go-getters, innovators, risk takers and leaders. I want the girls in this troop to learn they are amazing people and help them build a strong confidence to one day accomplish all their dreams.”

Relph echoed Carrillo’s thoughts, saying that the Latina troop led by Elda Zapain followed much of the same approach, and that Girl Scouts encourages family participation, including dads who are now volunteering in many ways. She said that parents and other adults play a critical role in delivering the Girl Scout leadership experience both as volunteers and as supporters.

“There are many planning resources and support systems available, such as the Volunteer Toolkit, training videos, activity plans and troop mentors,” Relph said. “With all of our new badges that are now available for the girls to earn, there are numerous opportunities for adults to help these girls reach their potential as tomorrow’s leaders.”


Golden Girls

The Gold Award, Girl Scouts highest achievement, is given to a Girl Scout who has completed a rigorous project that prepares her for a lifetime of possibility, thinking and doing and must be ongoing and self-sustaining.

“With the Gold Award, the scout has to identify an issue, create a plan, lead a team to develop a sustainable solution to the issue, and demonstrate skills in advanced planning, organization and team building,” said Relph. “The Gold Award is impressive to colleges and universities, and to the military, which advances the Gold Award Scout a full rank.”

In nearly 100 years of scouting, 1 million girls have earned the Gold Award or its equivalent. From 1916 to 1919, the honor was called the Golden Eagle of Merit; from 1919-39 it was known as the Golden Eaglet, and from 1938 to 1940, it was First Class. From 1940 to 1963, the award was called the Curved Bar, followed by First Class distinction from 1963 to 1980. It was in 1980 that it received its current name of Gold Award.

According to Relph, scouts spend between one and two years on their projects, and the average age of the participants is 17. In recent years, four southwest Kansas area girls have earned the coveted honor, including Jennifer Delzeit of Dodge City and Danielle Hutton of Scott City (2013), Briana Hutton of Scott City (2015), and Elizabeth Kemper of Montezuma (2017).

“Time and again, the extensive research documents what we’ve known all along: that girls learn best in a single-gender environment,” Relph said. “Girl Scouts is proven to help them develop a strong sense of self, encourages them to seek challenges and learn from setbacks, determine and display positive values, form and maintain healthy relationships and identify and solve community problems. It really is the best female leadership development program anywhere.”