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Not Your Grandma's Girl Scouts

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

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.

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.

 

For the Gold Award she had to do the organization herself.

"I had to go outside of my boundaries. I looked and found the Fort Bend County Women's Center," she says. And they welcomed her with open arms.

"We like to encourage the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts to volunteer with us, to see what the real impact of family violence is," says Cristy Lafuente. She is executive director of the shelter, which has an undisclosed site in Richmond and saw 2,610 women and children last year.

Volunteers are supervised on the content of their work and are asked to leave if they aren't effective and can't keep to a schedule, Lafuente says. So for two months, for two to three days each week, Anderson went to the center and worked with children. Most of them didn't read well. She targeted kids six to eight years old and worked with them on basic reading and pronunciation. She'd already talked to education experts about the best way to help these children.

Some she saw for only a day or two. Others for a week, week and a half. Does she think she did any good in that relatively short time? Yes.

"Those kids, for that moment, they weren't thinking of what brought them there. I just thought they needed a nice time, too," she says simply.


Part of the reason Rachelle Anderson has done so remarkably well is that she's part of what's considered by the Girl Scout council to be a remarkable group, the Mayfair Park unit.

Troop leader Carolyn Petteway says she decided when she became involved with scouting six years ago that the best way to keep the girls in the group was to keep them busy, expose them to circumstances they might not know about otherwise and listen to what they said was important to them.

"We're trying to teach the kids to give back to their community, to give from their heart. And hope that carries on when they get a little older," Petteway says.

Petteway decided one way to give back would be to wade into the emergency room at Ben Taub Hospital and see what her girls could do there. She gathered up her group of seniors, including her own daughter Tiffanie, for an orientation session and a TB skin test, and took them down to the charity hospital's pediatric emergency room, a journey pretty far removed from most people's conception of nice little Girl Scouts on an outing.

There they read to the kids waiting with their families to see a doctor. "I wanted them to show me how they would respond in the emergency room," Petteway says. The kids in the emergency room loved hearing the stories, and the only thing that really surprised the Girl Scouts, she says, was that the children they attracted weren't just the youngest kids. "There were kids in the fifth and sixth grades who couldn't read."

(Apparently Girl Scouts and their leaders can be pretty determined about a lot of things. The Ben Taub pediatric emergency room did not meet Petteway's standards. She found it "dull and drab with no color for the kids," and didn't hesitate to share that opinion with the hospital director. After a while the hospital had the room painted in brighter colors and had child-size chairs put in, she says approvingly. Girl power.)

It was this kind of experience that Anderson used to take her into the Fort Bend County Women's Center.


Do classmates still give Anderson a hard time about being a Girl Scout? Yes, sometimes, she says, laughing. "At first, I kind of got teased. When they found out I got the all-expense-paid trip to Washington and got on TV, they thought this is not a dorky thing to do."

Girl scouting still involves cookie sales, the major fund-raiser for the scouts. And it's easy to reduce Girl Scouts to being little more than that (although what that does to teach salesmanship, inventory technique, accounting and customer service at an early age can be pretty helpful later in life.)

But a lot of things have changed. The faces aren't just white. They aren't just suburban. There are troops all over New York City and Washington, D.C. The badges have changed. Fourth-grade girls can earn a Ms. Fixit badge that has them working with tools, changing washers. There's a Money Sense badge that introduces them to saving and budgeting. Older girls stay in the program lured by canoeing and horsemanship badges. There are regular career days. Girl Scouts now offer college scholarships. Community service is stressed.

 

The all-girls environment encourages the scouts to be strong and confident and to speak up, Brewster says. Girl Scouts look to women to become troop leaders -- yes, fathers can be involved, but they really want girls to see what women have done and can do, Brewster says. And they want their learning environment to be free of boy-girl competition, she says.

"We're trying to promote science and math," Brewster says. (Anderson plans to major in computer engineering and to minor in business in college.) Self-confidence also comes from trying new things, like guiding a canoe down a river, and doing them successfully, Brewster says.

"There's still that sense of girl power, teaching them to be leaders. Empowering the girls. Teaching them the 'I-can-do,' " says Petteway. "Just believing in themselves is very important. You take girls and you try to show them different things, things they would never experience otherwise. And you see the growth."

Few high school students would be confident enough to approach a shelter for abused women, ask what its needs were and embark upon a reading program. Fewer still would have the determination to stay the course, to carry it off successfully. Rachelle Anderson had the will and the skill. Her experience in Girl Scouts not only made it a necessity if she was to achieve a Gold Award, but gave her the tools to do the job.

If the Girl Scouts were smarter, and they seem to be getting smarter, they'd order up a recruiting poster and put Rachelle Anderson all over it.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret.downing@houstonpress.com.


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