Girl Scouts, celebrating 100th year, have come a long way

CHICAGO Mon Mar 12, 2012 4:54pm EDT

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Girl Scouts past and present celebrated the organization's 100th anniversary on Monday with sing-a-longs, cookie sales, and a pledge to put more women into the corner office.

This is not your mother's Girl Scouts.

"This is the 'year of the girl,' 2012," Maria Wynne, head of the group's Chicago area council, told a few hundred current and former scouts at a blustery downtown Chicago ceremony.

"We will strive to eliminate gender inequality and gender imbalance," Wynne said. "There are too few women CEOs."

Fifty million girls and women have belonged to the Girls Scouts of the USA over the past century, learning everything from how to tie knots and build camp fires to computer skills. In the process they built a resume and a network of "sisters" who can smooth a pathway to good schools and better jobs.

Girl Scouts have gone on to become business executives, astronauts, and members of Congress. Wynne said two-thirds of the women in Congress are former Scouts.

"We have a lot of fun. We're like sisters," said Sidnie Giles, 10, before mounting the stage with a half-dozen Scout comrades to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the Girl Scout Promise, and the Girl Scout Law.

Scouts pledge to serve their country, help people always, respect authority, use resources wisely, and make the world a better place.

"My favorite activity is camping and going on the trips, and I like learning to tie knots," said Giles, who is raising money through sales of the famed Girl Scout cookies to pay for a trip to Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah is where the group's founder, Juliette Gordon Low, started the organization created solely for girls, with a call to her cousin, reportedly telling her, "Come right over, I've got something for the girls of Savannah," Wynne said.

Low was inspired by visits with the still-existing Girl Guides that originated in Great Britain, with her aim to instill patriotism and build skills, courage, confidence and character.

Scouting activities such as "judging meat" and other household tasks that once earned merit badges have evolved with the times.

"We have a place called 'Journey World' where we learn robotics, and there's a lawyer program and 'Camp CEO' where they learn business skills and meet mentors who often stay with them long after the program ends," said Vivian Johnson, 52, a scout leader in the Chicago area, the largest in the United States with 87,000 members.

Her sister, Stephanie Bradley, 51, is the leader of a "troop" of girls from Chicago. Her daughter is a former Scout and leader and her granddaughter joined recently.

"I love going on the trips with the girls. We do things outside their own neighborhoods," Bradley said.

That might include making scrapbooks for hospital cancer patients or working in a food pantry, said Bernadette Colletti, a scout leader. Troops of different-aged girls get together, so the older ones can teach the younger ones.

"They might teach them how to camp, build a fire, and how to stay up late and tell ghost stories," Colletti said. "Charities call upon us all the time to help."

"No matter what the girl is interested in, we fit the girl," Colletti added as she sold cookies.

While more boxes are sold online or at shopping malls than door-to-door, the Thin Mints are still by far the biggest seller over Peanut Butter Cremes, Shortbread Trefoils and Savannah Smiles.

Many in the Chicago crowd speckled with bright green scarves, berets, and the occasional vest or dress festooned with merit badges sang a few of the group's songs, "Make New Friends" and "On My Honor," from memory.

The group has 3.2 million members, mostly in the United States and at scattered international schools throughout the world.

Membership has grown about half a percent per year -- twice that in the Chicago region -- and the organization has proved flexible. If girls hesitate to join because the Scouts are seen as "uncool," they can skip wearing the uniform.

"They don't want to be nerdy, so they dress down but wear the pin," Bradley said, gesturing to her own pin array.

(Reporting By Andrew Stern; Editing by Greg McCune)

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