How the Girl Scouts Work

By: Amy Hunter
Girls smiling in childhood joy.
Actress Abigail Breslin attends a ceremony inducting her into the Girl Scouts of the USA, held at 20th Century Fox Studios on March 26, 2008 in Los Angeles, Calif.
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The Girl Scouts of America is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1912 by a woman named Juliette Gordon Low. Low was raised in a well-to-do Southern American family and was lucky enough to receive a more thorough education than many of her peers. After a brief and unhappy marriage, she was searching for something meaningful to do with her life. When she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell at a luncheon in England, she was captivated by his idea for the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England. She liked the concept of teaching young girls outdoor skills, bringing them together to socialize and helping them to develop leadership skills. So she decided to create a similar club for girls in the United States. Low's first Girl Scout troop included 18 girls, and they met in her hometown of Savannah, Ga.

The Girl Scouts of America has come along way from that tiny troop in Georgia. Today, it has over 50 million alumnae, and each year, 2.7 million girls and nearly 1 million adults participate in scouting activities. There are over 236,000 troops in the United States, U.S. territories and 90 other countries.


Though the numbers have surely increased, the baseline Girl Scout activities remain largely the same. In the early years, Low taught the girls how to tell time by watching the stars, took them hiking and camping, and led them in service projects for the community. Today, girls engage in the same activities -- camping, hiking and community service.

A Girl Scout is between the age of five and 17. The Girl Scout program further divides the scouting program into smaller groups, with activities and badges tailored to each. Depending on your age, you may join the Daisy Scouts, Brownies, Junio­r Scouts or Girl Scouts 11-17, a group formerly known as Cadette, Senior and Ambassadors.


Types of Girl Scouts

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 In 2007, scouts from almost every country in the world gathered in England to celebrate scouting's 100th birthday.
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The mission of the Girl Scouts is to create an accepting and nurturing environment where girls can build leadership skills, a social conscience and strong values. Under that umbrella, each group of Girl Scouts has slightly different expectations.

Girl Scouts are divided into different age groups. The youngest group, the Daisy Scouts, is for girls who are five and six years old. They meet in small groups with two adult leaders and can earn learning petals and patches by completing activities. For example, a Daisy Scout group may work with their leader to plant a community garden or complete a craft project during a meeting. Or, a Daisy Scout could earn participation points for reading between meetings.


Brownies are six to eight years old, and earn try-it patches. A Brownie may earn her patches by doing any number of things, including: learning a magic trick, learning how to properly care for the American flag, completing a time line of her life, finding and watching animal homes (like a bird's nest or a duck pond), and making kites with a paper lunch sack. Service projects typically involve the entire troop. Projects could include: collecting food or clothing for a homeless shelter, decorating a nursing home for the holidays or babysitting during a school meeting. Brownies also participate in camping programs.

Juniors are older scouts, from eight to 11 years old. They may earn badges for volunteering, drawing or taking pictures, or learning first aid or computer skills. They also camp and play sports with their troops. Juniors also earn badges by participating in adventure sports -- like caving or rock climbing. Like the Brownies, they typically completed service projects as a team. These scouts may maintain a walking trail in their community or conduct a flag ceremony at a sporting event. They're encouraged to examine their community to determine its needs before choosing a service project.

Girl Scouts 11-17 mix and match activities to suit their particular interests. Girls in this program can learn about careers they might want to pursue in the future, the environment, writing, cooking, backpacking and other more traditional scouting pursuits. This age group also participates in camp. Girl Scouts 11-17 can earn patches or charms in a variety of activities, including newer ones like eco-action, a program that teaches the importance of a clean environment, or more traditional ones like backpacking. These older scouts are expected to perform a service project for each charm that they earn. For example, the eco-action project includes skill-based learning activities, but before a charm is awarded, the girl must complete a related service project, such as volunteering for an environmental cause or creating a directory of local and state level environmental resources.

When Girl Scouts participate in a variety of activities throughout the ranks, they have no trouble fulfilling the Girl Scout motto: "be prepared."


The Girl Scout Life

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Girl Scouts make signs at the Lynx Block Party prior to the game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Detroit Shock.
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Scouting life has changed since the days of Juliette Gordon Low, but much of it still revolves around camping. Camping activities vary based on the age group. Day camps are often the young Girl Scout's first experience with camping. The girls participate in many of the traditional camping activities -- crafts, making s'mores, hiking -- but return home each day.

Brownies, Juniors and Girls 11-17 enjoy an array of scouting adventures. In resident camps, the campers visit an established campsite, equipped with a place for the girls to sleep and facilities for cooking and bathing. The amenities offered at each campground vary. While some resident camps have bunk beds and lodges, others are positively rustic. Core staff camping is another option for scouting troops. In core staff camping, the troop is helped at their campsite by a core group, who provide supplies, food and first aid support. This is a good option for a troop with a leader who's leery of the responsibility of taking a group of young girls camping by herself.


In trip camping, the Girl Scout troop moves from one camp spot to the next each day, traveling by bicycle, canoe or horseback. Girl Scout troops implement Leave No Trace or minimal impact procedures while on camping excursions.

Aside from camping, rituals are also fundamental to the Girl Scouts, including the ritual of the awarding of the dime. The significance of the shiny new dime is the ten parts of the Girl Scout Law, which include the reminder to be honest, fair, respectful and make the world a better place. Another ritual is to keep a small amount of the ashes from one campfire to add it to the next one -- whether that campfire is built the next day or the next summer, and no matter the location. If more than one scout collects ashes, they're pooled before adding them to the campfire.

In the past, Girl Scouts revolved around the three Cs -- crafts, camping and cooking. But today, you can add computers and careers to that list. The Girl Scouts of America has been extremely proactive in its effort to remain relevant to young ladies, and the proof is in the nearly 3 million girls who participate in the organization. This number has remained remarkably consistent even though the competition for a young girl's time increases every year.

The Girl Scouts developed the Girl Scout Research Institute to grow the organization in areas that interest the girls. These days, girls are encouraged to name their own groups and mix and match activities to develop a program that suits their interests.

What do the scouts wear these days? A tunic, sash or vest that they may pair with a polo or other collared shirts, and skorts, slacks or skirts.


Girl Scout Cookies

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Girl Scouts Janice Olivieri and Sydney Lezberg sell cookies to Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and his son Jackson on March 8, 2005.
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What's a Girl Scout without her cookies? With $700 million in annual sales, cookies are big business for the Girl Scouts [source: McKenna]. The idea to sell cookies to raise money dates back to the organization's earliest days. In 1917, a Girl Scout troop baked cookies and sold them in their high school cafeteria as a service project. In 1922, an article published in The American Girl, the official Girl Scout publication, gave a recipe for the cookies and stated that the ingredients for six to seven dozen cookies should cost between .26 and .36 cents. It then stated that the cookies be sold for between .25 and .35 cents a dozen. The girls weren't bashful about turning a profit.

Selling cookies to raise funds snowballed within the Girl Scout community, and in 1934, a troop in flour and sugar shortages. The Girl Scouts sold calendars during that time. In 1978, the Girl Scouts of America began to oversee the packaging of the cookies, and all of the boxes of cookies across the country sported the same look.


Daisy scouts are not permitted to sell Girl Scout cookies, but Brownies, Juniors and older Girl Scouts are all encouraged to participate. Brownies can earn Cookies Count and Smart Cookie try-its; Juniors earn The Cookie Connection and Cookie Biz badges; and, older teens can earn a Cookies and Dough charm. Badges and charms are not earned by those who sell the most cookies, but by those who complete other activities, like goal setting, studying advertisements and creating a poster advertising for the cookie sale, or writing a story about the cookie sale and submitting it to the local newspaper. All Girl Scouts who participate in the sale earn an activity pin.

To be an approved Girl Scout bakery, of which there are currently two in the U.S., the bakery must agree to make Thin Mints, Do-si-dos and Trefoils. The other five varieties can be any type the bakery wants, although Caramel DeLights (Samoas), or , and Peanut Butter Patties (Tagalongs), are the two most popular non-mandatory flavors.

Selling cookies is a major fundraiser for Girl Scout councils. Seventy percent of the money stays within the local council, and the remaining 30 percent goes to the bakery. From the 70 percent the council receives, each troop receives funding, typically 12 to 17 percent of the amount that they sell. The money goes into its treasury, and the girls vote to determine how it should be spent. Selling Girl Scout cookies is an important part of the scouting experience. The girls learn how to set goals, money management and teamwork skills by participating in this project.­


The Girl Scout Organization: Girl Scouts of America and Beyond

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Iraqi Girl Scouts participate in a water balloon fight during an activity day at the U.S. embassy pool, formerly palace of Saddam Hussein, in Baghdad's Green Zone in August 2008.
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The Girl Scouts of America has avoided much of the press given the Boy Scouts because it has an official policy of nondiscrimination. It doesn't endorse any lifestyle choice and feels that homosexuality is a private matter.

Its open door policy has led some conservative Americans to believe the organization is run by radical and militant feminists and lesbians. This idea gained more attention in the 1970s, when the Girl Scouts asked Betty Friedan, a noted feminist, to sit on its board of directors. The Girl Scouts of America also has a history of supporting relevant women's legislation, such as Title IX, which requires equal funding for female and male activities that receive public support. When asked today if the Girl Scouts considers itself to be a feminist organization, the answer usually is this: that the girls involved in the program are encouraged to develop a strong will and independence, which has little to do with feminism, and more to do with what is required to succeed in today's world.


In 1993, the Girl Scouts allowed each troop to change the Girl Scout promise if they wished, removing the word "God" from the creed. Not only may each troop makes its own decision on this, but each girl may choose to use the word "God," another word or nothing at all. How many troops have made the change is unknown.

The cookie sale, because it's such an effective fundraiser, causes controversy each year. Often, it's the simple matter of Girl Scouts setting up tables in front of a store or office building where they obstruct traffic. Other times it's more complicated. For example, one girl set up her sales stand, had her mother man it while she was at school, and sold a record breaking 17,323 boxes of Girl Scout cookies [source: Sultan]. Although parents provide some type of help in the cookie sale, many people thought that particular mother was overly involved.

Girl Scouts who remain in the program through their teen years have the opportunity to earn the Gold Award. To earn this award, the Girl Scout must be between the ages of 14 and 18, keep a journal documenting 30 hours of work in a leadership role, 40 hours of career exploration -- for example, working at a job -- and then choose a project. The project is a community service project that she develops and implements on her own. It should be something about which she feels passionate. She's required to submit a final report detailing the project. Each year, only about 5.5 percent of the Girl Scouts who are eligible for the Gold Award receive it, so it's a very prestigious award.­


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Bloomekatz, Ari. "Girl Scouts Trying to Speak Young Latinas' Language." Los Angeles Times. June 1, 2008. (August 22, 2008)
  • Gianoulis, Tina. "Girl Scouts." GLBTQ, the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Culture. November 15, 2006. (August 20, 2008)
  • Girl Scouts. (August 27, 2008)
  • Girl Scouts, Lone Star Council (September 3, 2008)
  • Lopez, Kathryn Jean. "The Cookie Crumbles, the Girl Scouts Go PC." The National Review. October 23, 2000. (August 20, 2008)
  • McKenna, David. "Smart Cookies." Fundraising Success. April 1, 2007. (August 20, 2008).
  • Sultan, Aisha. "Record-Breaking Cookie Sales Spark Controversy." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. May 14, 2008. (September 3, 2008)