More than cookies: The importance of Girl Scouts in my life

Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from women in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to join the Reckon Women Facebook group.

By Millie Jackson

Long before Women’s History Month was established in 1981, I was involved in celebrating the achievements of girls and women.  The Girl Scout Birthday is on March 12 and within the week the 12th falls, Girl Scout Week is celebrated.   Each year from elementary school through high school I took pride in wearing my Girl Scout uniform and talking about the program that was such an integral part of my life. It was something that felt natural to me, not anything I thought was out of the ordinary. As I have grown older, I have realized the impact Girl Scouts had on my young life and has had on my adult life.

I began my Girl Scout career in second grade at the age of 7.  That fall I stood with my friends gazing into the looking glass, a round piece of cardboard covered in aluminum foil, and recited the Brownie Pledge and received my first Girl Scout pin. I continued in Girl Scouts for a decade as a member and after college I became a leader for a few years.

The truth I have realized as an adult is that the Girl Scout program shaped my values and taught me about leadership, project planning, and collaboration in ways that I didn’t learn in school or anywhere else.  Certainly, there were cookie sales to teach financial skills, but that was the tip of the iceberg for me.

Through working in the patrol system, I learned to work with others who didn’t always agree.  I learned about compromise and planning events like camping trips and field trips.  Sometimes we were allowed to fail when we left out a step in order to learn where we could do something better. No leader let us do anything that would have caused danger, but they did let us make decisions as we planned events and learn from our mistakes.

I learned that trying something new was a good thing in life, even if it was just a “girl scout bite.”  When camping we had to try at least one bite of food that we thought we’d never like before we were given the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I learned that some foods weren’t so bad after all.

Girl Scouts also taught me about fairness, kindness, and service to others. Generosity and the spirit of giving were celebrated through events like the annual Mitten Tree when troops gathered mittens, gloves, and hats for those less fortunate.  We also spent time with elders, visiting them and performing service even if it was just time.  I celebrated the first Earth Day as a Girl Scout, increasing my awareness of the precious resources that surrounded me.

As I grew older, I learned skills that I have used throughout my life. I became more self-reliant and self-confident through performing the projects for First Class, then the highest achievement a Girl Scout could earn.  As a high school student, I had enough confidence to apply for two Wider Opportunities, events sponsored by Girl Scout Councils that provide older Girl Scouts chances to travel and learn about different topics, cultures, or people. At 15 I took my first flight to Boston to attend a two-week Wider Opportunity celebrating the Bicentennial.  I met girls and leaders from across the United States and was able to visit historical sites that my family could have never afforded to visit.  The following year I went to Arkansas to be a camp counselor for mentally disabled girls.  This event challenged me as I worked with my fellow camp counselors to plan programs and make adjustments on the fly when things were not working as we anticipated so we could provide the best experience possible for the girls in our care.

The culminating trip for my Senior troop was a hike across the state of Michigan.  We spent a year planning for the trip.  This included creating budgets, doing research on dry foods and what we could carry in our backpacks for a week, taking practice hikes, raising money not just from cookies but also from other fundraisers to pay for the trip.  We had to recruit parents to drive us to our starting point and pick us up a week later and have an adult go along with us.  We were certified in first aid in case anything bad happened in the middle of the woods. The trip was not perfect, but it is a cherished memory I carry with me nearly 45 years later.

I didn’t think of myself as brave or courageous as I applied for Wider Opportunities and flew to other parts of the country by myself.  Or when I got into a canoe despite my less-than-great swimming skills.  Or when I built a fire in the woods to cook a meal.  But all of these things were brave and courageous and strengthened me for future challenges. It is only in looking back that I see the real impact that being a Girl Scout had on my life.

The program has evolved since I participated in the 1960s and 1970s, but it still provides girls with the opportunities to develop skills that will serve them the rest of their lives. I carry the experiences and lessons with me and rely on what I learned all those years ago more than I had imagined.  Girl Scouts helped form my character and my values and I am proud it was part of my life.

Millie Jackson is a writer, coach, and storyteller.  She writes about health and education.  You can learn more about her at www.millieljackson.com

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