Not Your Grandma's Girl Scouts

Rachelle Anderson just took super Girl Scout honors. And it wasn't hustling cookies that got her there.

In 1909 the Boy Scouts held their first mass rally in London, England. As Collier's Encyclopedia recounts, "A number of girls arrived, uninvited, and expressed interest in joining the scouting movement. [Lord Robert S.S.] Baden-Powell decided it would be better to establish a similar movement for girls than to allow girls to join the Boy Scouts. He then asked his sister Agnes to organize such a movement."

Well, they may have made Sir Robert nervous, but Girl Guides, as they are known in Great Britain and throughout the world, and their American cousins, Girl Scouts, have prospered. It was that good Southerner, Juliette Gordon Low of Savannah, Georgia, who brought what she knew of the Girl Guides to the U.S. of A., starting its first troop of 12 Savannah girls on March 12, 1912. She promised outdoor adventure. They would learn to cook over campfires, swim and camp out in tents and cabins. They would learn how to tie knots in ropes and be responsible citizens, launching into the occasional "Make Good Friends"-type song as needed (the development of s'mores came later). This was a chance for girls to show their stuff and prosper. Girl Scouts could even earn plucky badges like "milkmaid" and "laundress" -- okay, it's doubtful the boys were channeled this way.

Low's vision has morphed over the years. Girl Scouts have been in and very out of fashion, in and out of effectiveness. The proud wearing of the uniform in earlier years along with the sash carrying all those badges became a wouldn't-be-caught-dead-in item by the 1960s, when weekly meetings to discuss how to cook and sew seemed decidedly out of step with the times. Accepted as something for young girls, scouting held little appeal for middle-schoolers and was pretty much gone by high school.

Rachelle Anderson read stories to children for weeks on end.
Arthur Hermiz
Rachelle Anderson read stories to children for weeks on end.

Eventually Girl Scout leaders knew they were in trouble, too. By 1985 the Girl Scouts organization realized that most of the membership was "upper-middle-class white girls," says Tanya Brewster, with the South Texas Council in Beaumont. They were out of touch; their mission and outreach needed fine-tuning. In Fort Bend County the program got a boost thanks to a George Foundation grant. The Girl Scouts started going into elementary schools, targeting those where half the girls were on the free lunch program. Suddenly there was a chance to become a Girl Scout free of charge -- same program, just without all the costs for membership and buying badges and coughing up money for trips, which had kept them out.

Then the Girl Scouts took it even further, offering scouting in 45-minute segments during school hours. Principals loved it, Brewster says. They were teaching self-esteem, telling these girls they could be anything they wanted to be, issuing them challenges. A program in a Galveston Island school was so successful, Brewster says, that the principal lamented there wasn't something similar for boys. So the Girl Scouts called the Boy Scouts and gave them a heads up. Heh, heh, heh.

And then we come to Rachelle Anderson, the pride of Missouri City. She just won her Gold Award, the Girl Scout equivalent of an Eagle Scout award.

She became the one Girl Scout in all of Texas and one of only 12 Girl Scouts nationally to be honored for her achievement with a trip to Washington in early March. There she met with government, business and community leaders, was introduced to New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman and was part of a panel discussion moderated by NBC News's Katie Couric. Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was the keynote speaker at the awards luncheon.

Anderson's project that gained her so much recognition: teaching reading to children in an abused women's shelter in Fort Bend County.

Roll over, Sir Robert.

Rachelle Anderson is a poised, articulate senior from Elkins High School in the Fort Bend Independent School District. Active in sports from an early age, she has taken years of ice-skating lessons and has played basketball and softball. Walk into the living room of her comfortable middle-class home, and you'll find a trophy case showing off those years of athletic awards. Nestled among them are Girl Scout awards.

Starting as a Brownie in second grade, Anderson says she stayed with the program because she liked camping and the community service. As a young scout she was part of a cleanup crew along FM 2234. She helped out at the Missouri City Library. As she got older, the projects got harder. Now she was expected to do more things on her own.

For her Silver Award project she drew up a plan to teach ice-skating to young children. To make this happen, she had to persuade Aerodrome managers she could do it. "On the Silver Award I had to be taught to be organized." Her mother, Diane, a social worker now in computer information services with the Memorial Hermann hospital system, helped her a lot in drawing up the plan, which took about three months to pull together. And she had to call on her father, Ray, and mother to drive the kids to the ice rink.

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