Out With the Scouts

When Juliette Gordon Low founded Girl Scouts in Savannah, Georgia 98 years ago, she probably never imagined that it would become the largest organization for girls in the world. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has over 100 million members in 145 countries. A branch of the national Girl Scout Organization, USA Girl Scouts Overseas (USAGSO), was established in Shanghai in 1925 and later in Beijing. Last year alone, Beijing's branch consisted of ten troops with over 200 members. The Girl Scout's Three Keys to Leadership are: Discover, Connect and Take Action. Girl Scouts is about empowering girls - encouraging them to be their own leaders, exploring a broad range of activities and pursuing community projects of their own interest.

Who Can Join?

USAGSO in Beijing welcomes girls ages 5 to 18 holding foreign passports. Last year, Girl Scout members came from all around the world, including the US, UK, Canada, South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden and Singapore.

American MaryKay Carlson, USAGSO Committee Chair for Beijing, has two daughters, ages 10 and 12, enrolled in Girl Scouts. After multiple overseas placements, she is happy that "the structure of the Girls Scouts organization has been one of the constants in [their] lives." Carlson herself has been an active adult volunteer for Girl Scouts for six years in the Ukraine, the US and Beijing.

Troops and Meetings

Girls are categorized by age group: Daisy (K-Grade 1), Brownie (Grade 2-3), Junior (Grade 4-5), Cadette (Grade 6-8), Senior (Grade 9-10) and Ambassador (Grade 11-12). A troop, or group of girls, has anywhere between five to 20 members. Older troops manage themselves and schedule their own meetings, while adult volunteers organize the younger girls. Dates, times and locations are up to the troops to decide, but most Beijing troops meet twice a month.

Parent Volunteers

While most adult members are mothers of Girl Scouts, fathers and adults without kids can also join. Beijing's branch had 21 registered parent volunteers last year; each troop has one troop volunteer (formerly called a troop leader) and one co-volunteer. Troop volunteers assist the troop, rather than lead them, giving the girls more of a leadership role.

Beijing Girl Scouts is unable to support the high number of applicants due to the lack of parent volunteer support. "Getting the parent commitment [remains the biggest challenge]," says Carlson. Wary parents should not be discouraged or intimidated by a language barrier or inexperience. New parents have the assistance of a trainer and first-year troop volunteers are paired with experienced troop volunteers. "If a parent is willing to help, we will definitely put them to work," says first-time troop volunteer Paige Snider.

A Girl-Led Journey

USAGSO follows the same procedures as the US Girl Scouts, from the uniform vests and colorful fabric badges to the prestigious awards of Bronze, Silver and Gold. Badges may be earned individually, but it is more common to do a series of theme-based activities that leads to a big activity or service project at the end of the year. Badges can be earned for a wide range of focuses, such as outdoor activities, self-esteem, computer skills and science.

At the beginning of the year, girls choose a focus based on a "journey." This upcoming year, the girls can choose from three different journeys: leadership, environment, and a journey of health, fitness and self-esteem. The girls then "Discover, Connect and Take Action" with respect to their chosen journey. Typically, the girls finish with an end-of-the-year project such as a food drive or assisting an animal shelter. "But the most important thing," says Snider, "is that the activities are girl-led - encouraging them to take initiative and follow through."

Events and Activities

Each year, there is a Beijing-wide Girl Scout Hike in the fall and a troop campout at the end of the year. Last year's Girl Scout Hike was at Intelligence Valley, an easy hike for all ages. Other events, open to all Beijing Girl Scouts, include World Thinking Day and the "Someone Special and Me" Snowflake ball, where girls invite a relative to dine and dance.

With the flexibility to create their own program, troops can opt to have more (or less) outdoor activities. In the past, troops have camped out at Goose 'n Duck in Mutianyu and WAB Wild (an eco-friendly campsite run by the Western Academy of Beijing). Younger girls may choose a "half campout," where they head home at 10pm.

For girls who prefer indoor activities, there's no shortage of fun. Troop volunteer Snider, who is entering her second year in USAGSO along with her 6-year-old daughter, held treasure hunts, science experiments, cooking, brainteasers and drama activities for her troop.

Community Service

The annual World Thinking Day is a day for girls to make a difference in the community. Last year, Girl Scouts collected milk and infant formula to donate to an orphanage as part of the theme "preventing world hunger." Carlson's troop sold small crafts and donated money to Roundabout Charity to support victims of the Qinghai earthquake.

Equivalent to the Boy Scout's Eagle Scout Award, the Girl Scout Silver and Gold Award are given to girls who accomplish an individual service project. Silver is awarded to Cadettes, Gold to Seniors and Ambassadors, while Bronze is a group project for Juniors. Last year for the Bronze Award, a troop presented new playground equipment, painted by them, to an orphanage. For her Silver Award, one exceptional Girl Scout completed a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) project for stray cats in her Beijing housing compound and for her Gold Award, established a charitable baking service.

"It's hard to say what the lasting impact will be, but I hope they'll be one of those 58 percent of women in the US Congress [who were Girl Scouts]," says Carlson. She also notes that the girls "don't even realize some of the components of the leadership skills they're picking up." Whether or not they are aware of it, Girl Scouts may very well become the world leaders of tomorrow.

How to Register
Interested parties must hold a foreign passport. Costs include a USD 12 registration fee and a nominal fee to the Beijing Committee of USA Girl Scouts Overseas. Additional fees are set and collected by the troop based on the activities and events they plan throughout the year.

A mandatory registration meeting will be held on August 31,6pm, at the International School of Beijing, Elementary Cafeteria. Parents may also apply to become troop volunteers. For details, contact girlscoutsbeijing@yahoo.com or visit www.girlscoutsbeijing.shutterfly.com