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In 1984, Terri Burnette and four other Girl Scouts set up a campground from scratch out in a field in Colorado. They were putting on workshops for Brownies and needed a place for the younger girls to stay.
"We sunk all the posts and built the platforms for the tent," Burnette says. "We mixed concrete; we concreted the flooring. We built all of the covering for it and a kitchen, in loose terms -- a sink area, multiple basins for washing, prep board areas, and we had to build all that into it."
They also built a large fire pit by dragging huge fallen trees, removing the bark and setting them around the pit.
Then they taught all the classes on winter sports such as skiing, sledding and horseback riding in the snow.
In order to earn her Gold Award in 2006, Kristy Robertson of Houston's San Jacinto Girl Scout Council organized a day for kids in The Woodlands to learn about safety. The event included nonprofit groups hosting workshops teaching things such as bike safety, safety in school, first aid and fire safety. Robertson did not have to teach these classes herself, but she did have to arrange the schedule, book a venue and promote the event.
As a result of their efforts, both Burnette and Robertson were awarded the Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouting.
The difference, 12 years later, is that somewhere along the way, the Girl Scouts replaced a hands-on builder with an events planner.
"I would say that the Girl Scouts have always been about change," says Denson.
For example, Denson says, in the past few years the Scouts have introduced Studio 2B, an alternative to the traditional program. It allows girls who are not in troops to participate in Girl Scout activities, trips and camps.
"Studio 2B was intended to offer something unique and different for girls 11–17," says Denson. "[It was] an additional avenue for girls not previously familiar with Girl Scouts, with focus books around different topics instead of (or in addition to) a handbook." The focus books address topics such as managing money, stress and daily life, and can be purchased at a Girl Scouts' store or on their online shopping mall, which also has hip T-shirts that can be an alternative to wearing a uniform. The Studio 2B pamphlets' layouts are bright and fun and look like something you'd pick up in the Teen magazine section at the bookstore.
The Girl Scouts of America started in 1912 when founder Juliette Gordon Low got a group of 18 girls together in order to show them they didn't have to be limited to domestic tasks. Her program incorporated both home economics and recreational activities such as hiking, first aid and various sports. Low wrote a handbook that listed 25 badges girls could earn once they mastered different skills.
The 1963 Junior Girl Scout Handbook includes badges such as Health Aide, Sewing, Active Citizen and Books. Each requires seven to eight activities to be completed in order for the badge to be earned. Today's Handbook has the same badges, although more options for earning the badges are given -- girls can choose six of ten to complete. Many badges have been added to keep up with the times, such as Math Whiz, Computer Fun and Science in Action.
Others include From Fitness to Fashion, Looking Your Best and Stress Less. These badges require girls to do things such as try out different hairstyles, look through magazines for fashion tips, organize their closets, and develop exercise and nutrition regimens.
Some observers believe badges like these are a sign the Girl Scouts might be turning the focus off hard work and activism and giving more attention to body image and commercialism.
"It does have a very commercial sense to it," says Emily Ostendorf, a former Scout who wrote an opinion article, "Troop Therapy," for Bitch magazine calling for a change in the program's focus. "You could read almost anything in a women's [magazine] and that would also be some kind of topic that is addressed in the Girl Scouts. That's where it's such a paradox, because you want to be able to reach girls who like YM and Teen and stuff like that, but you negate that broad base that's like, 'Well, why even have an organization at all? What differentiates this group from just not being in anything?'"
Ostendorf also points out a recent commercial for the Scouts, with girls posing with electric guitars and talking about fashion. "I was like, this isn't the Girl Scouts I remember," Ostendorf says. She wasn't the only one who noticed the change.
"I just pulled my eldest daughter out of Girl Scouts because she learned more about glitter lip gloss than civic duty," says Sevil Omer in her post on a blog for the Nevada paper Reno Gazette-Journal. "I'd love to hear from a Girl Scouts troop that still holds true to its tradition and mission of civic duty."
Burnette says, however, that what girls learn in their troops depends on the leader. Burnette has two girls in the San Jacinto Scouts and says her daughters are involved in camping and community service -- even as Brownies. She says although her girls are involved in such activities, there are troops she calls "hotel campers" that head for more comfortable destinations.
"They take really cool trips with cookie moneys. They go to Sea World and they stay at the Hilton, and while they're there they go to a movie and maybe have their nails done," Burnette says, "but that's what those five little girls want." Burnette says she has always been impressed with the choice the Scouts allow girls to have these days, and thinks it attracts a wider audience than the Scouts of her time did. "I had friends that thought it was really cool that I was in Girl Scouts, but you wouldn't have caught them dead back packing."
Ostendorf and Omer don't see the changes so benignly.
"In some ways I can see that the Girl Scouts are trying to address concerns, but I feel like in some ways it goes the opposite," Ostendorf says. "They're telling girls: 'Here are things you should be concerning yourself with.'"
She adds that badges for things like good grooming and fashion magazine research were given back in the '50s, and that their revival shows a regression. "We're right back in the '50s."
Low intended the Scouts to explore life outside of the house. If a girl isn't encouraged to go camping, will she? She could always stay in her room, flip through the latest issue of Elle, do her nails and earn a different badge. This isn't to say that Scouts shouldn't keep their nails clean, but shouldn't there be dirt to clean in the first place?