As an elementary school student, Karen Cotton knew she wanted to become a Girl Scout. When she first tried to become a Brownie, however, it didn't look as though it would work out.
"Way back when I joined, everyone wanted to be a Girl Scout," she said. "I always tell the story, my sister and I and a couple of other girls went to a Brownie meeting. As is the case even today, they said, 'Sorry. We're full. We can't take any more girls.' So I cried until they let me in."
One hundred years after Juliette Gordon Low founded the organization, there are 3.2 million registered Girl Scouts and 50 million alumni nationwide. The organization has proclaimed 2012 "The Year of the Girl" in celebration of girls, recognition of their leadership potential and a commitment to supporting balanced leadership in the workplace and in all communities.
Senior Girl Scout Troop 14 makes a human pyramid at the troop cabin at Camp Newatah on Chautauqua Lake in 1959. Among the girls in the photo are lifelong friends Joanne Nelson, bottom left; Pat (Ohls) Stimson and Bev (Thrall) Fredlund, center from left, and Marilyn (Werner) Nelson, top. In 2012, Girls Scouts of the USA is celebrating its 100th anniversary of building friendships and empowering young women.
Cotton now has several decades of registered Girl Scouting under her belt, including a couple of stints as a leader. She led troops when her children were young and picked up another one after retiring from Falconer High School.
"A lot of the leaders start because their girls are in it," she said. "You can volunteer; it's all volunteer work. I think we're providing a program for girls that they may not get anywhere else. It develops leadership skills. There are very few other outdoor-skills type camping programs anymore."
When Cotton joined the Girl Scouts, her family didn't have a lot of money. As a part of the organization, she had opportunities to travel and to enjoy the outdoors that she may not have experienced otherwise. She even sailed on a 52-foot schooner off the coast of Nova Scotia.
"Being a Girl Scout gave me a lot of self-confidence," she said. "I think it helped me to be a better teacher just because of the things I learned there."
Joanne Nelson joined the Girl Scouts at age 6. She remains involved with the organization to this day. She directed Camp Timbercrest in Randolph for 10 years in the late 1960s and 1970s and was president of the former Chautauqua Area Girl Scouts for six years.
"I was a teacher at the time, and I loved working with the children," she said of her time directing the camp. "You make lifelong friendships in the Girl Scouts. Even today, just last week, I was eating out and saw a woman who I worked with back in the 1960s. You always remember them; I truly remember the friendships and the giving that goes on in the Girl Scouts. The volunteers do so much for the girls. It shows in the girls. They learn all kinds of things. They learn about themselves. They learn how to respect others. They feel empowered to do so much and to help the world become a better place."
A CENTURY AND COUNTING
In 1912, Girl Scouts focused on crafts, camping trips and selling cookies. In 2012, the organization hopes to shape the future leaders of the world. Girl Scouts hopes to help girls reach their potential, operating under the campaign tag line "ToGetHerThere."
"Advancing the position of women and girls in our society means we must champion all girls," said Cindy L. Odom, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Western New York. "Strengthening a girl's sense of self and boosting her capacity to seek and meet challenges in contemporary society will undoubtedly result in positive systemic change for our community and our world. When girls succeed, so does society. Girl Scouts believe together, we will get her there."
Lisa Goodell directed the former Girl Scouts of Southwestern New York, which became part of the Girl Scouts of Western New York in 2008. The Girl Scouts allowed her, the girls and volunteers to take part in new experiences.
"It was fun to see the girls get involved at a young age and learn self-identity," she said. "They learned to be proud of who they are. They learned to set goals and go after them. It was a great organization to be a part of, and it was fun for me because there were so many things going on. It was a challenge, but it was a really fun challenge."
The Greater Jamestown Area Girl Scouts will celebrate 100 years of Girl Scouts accomplishments and challenges Thursday, March 22, in the Girl Scouts of Western New York Service Center on Horton Road. Girl Scouts of Western New York brings programs to girls and young women between ages 5 and 17.
"A lot of the programs were geared at topics that girls don't typically get involved with," Goodell said. "We were able to get them involved in science projects and science events. We would take them up to Buffalo to the science museum and introduce them to things that they wouldn't otherwise have gotten to be involved in."
A CHANGING ENVIRONMENT
With the goal of keeping up with the times, Girl Scouts USA recently unveiled 136 new badges designed to equip girls with modern-day skills. The badges include digital photography, science of style and social innovator.
Next month, the Girl Scouts of Western New York will introduce several new badges focused on the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, while attempting to increase awareness on the history of Girl Scouts.
In addition to new badges, the organization has introduced a program called "Leadership Journeys" created to engage girls and young women in activities around themes such as the environment, advocacy and self-esteem building.
With 100 years already in the books for the Girl Scouts, Nelson believes another century of friendships, leadership and empowerment is a strong possibility for girls and young women.
"I think it will last as long as the volunteers today accept the changes that are coming along," she said. "When I was younger, we did cooking badges and badges that had to do with pets and things like that. Now, there's computer badges and all kinds of technology things. I stayed involved because I enjoyed girl scouting so much. It just gives you all kinds of opportunities. I think when people think of Girl Scouts, they think of cookies and camp. Certainly, those are two of the things, but we also did all kinds of special events. We traveled. They used to have a Girl Scout Roundup; I was selected to go to that. The reason I stayed in is because I felt that Girl Scouts, and I still do, is very important for girls, and it teaches them leadership and how to make decisions."
Nelson became involved in leadership training, which she has done for more than 25 years. She handles outdoor training for area troop leaders. Another key to the past successes of the Girl Scouts has been a focus on leader recognition, according to Nelson.
"Girl Scouting does a wonderful job of recognizing the volunteers who work in Girl Scouting, and I am on the recognition committee," she said. "I just think that that's so important. They can get all different kinds of awards - a thing called the 'Thanks Badge.' They get various awards like Outstanding Leader, Outstanding Volunteer ... there's just a whole bunch of them; the Honor Pin is one of them."
Nelson remembers having a full Camp Timbercrest during past summers, with girls staying for a week or two at a time. The organization may have made some changes to survive in the 21st century. However, at least one rule has remained the same: no boys are allowed.
"At one point in time, somebody put a motion on the floor that they would like boys included in the Girl Scouts," said Nelson, who used to attend national Girl Scout conferences. "There were people who spoke up for it and people who wanted to keep it an all-girls organization. I thought it was interesting to hear the girls say, 'No. Don't allow this.' They enjoy having an all-girl situation. There aren't a lot of those. The overriding thing is that it's fun. The first time I went to New York City, the first time I went to Colorado, it was with the Girl Scouts."