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Girl Scouts Seek Modern Image

October 21, 2000

ATLANTA (AP) _ The Laundress and Matron Housekeeper badges are long gone. The Girl Scouts want people to know they’re more likely to be kickboxing, designing Web pages and rock climbing than cooking and sewing.

Facing nationwide problems attracting troop leaders and retaining members in their early teens, the Girl Scouts are trying to put a young, hip face on the traditional cookies-and-camping group.

In Georgia, recruiting ads show a girl with green hair and fingernails. In another poster, a girl sports a tattoo of the Girl Scout trefoil on her back. The message: ``Sure, we still wear green. But a lot else has changed.″

``We don’t just sit around in troop meetings and make arts and crafts,″ said Harriet Hessam, director of the Northwest Georgia Girl Scout Council, which developed the campaign.

The posters target young single volunteers in their 20s and 30s, not the stay-at-home moms who have anchored the volunteer corps for decades. That ``traditional mom audience″ is increasingly working and busy, Hessam said.

With ads in college newspapers and on Top-40 radio stations, the Girl Scouts are betting young women have more free time and relate better to girls, many of whom quit during puberty because hanging out with mothers has lost its charm.

The effort has netted 500 new volunteers since it started in July, an increase so impressive the ads may be used nationwide.

Tanya Waters, 17, is the only Girl Scout in her senior class in Ellenwood, Ga. She remembers going to troop meetings with her older sister when she was little _ ``pretty much all they did was sew and go camping.″ But she joined, and stayed in, because her troop did cooler stuff, from sailing to following successful women to work.

``They’ve expanded a lot,″ Waters said.

She’s resigned herself to the looks she gets when friends find out she’s still a Scout.

``My friends are like, ’Oh, you’re a Girl Scout? What, do you sell cookies?‴ she said. ``That’s the reaction. But actually, no, I don’t sell cookies. There’s a lot more to it than that. You can pretty much do whatever you want to do.″

At Girl Scouts headquarters in New York, leaders held focus groups with girls in 1998 to find ways to update the group’s image. The idea was to help scouting compete with a growing number of after-school activities for girls, spokeswoman Lori Arguelles said.

The result is more emphasis on sports, technology and math instead of domestic activities. A new crop of awards for young Girl Scouts debuting this fall include ``Computer Smarts″ and ``Penny Power,″ a money-management award.

The group also has launched a GirlSports program that culminates in a summer weekend of kayaking, rock-climbing and hiking.

``We’ve been evolving,″ said Girl Scouts national Director Marsha Johnson Evans, a retired Navy rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. ``We’re much more than cookies and crafts. We’re technology, we’re competitive sports, we’re adventure.″

The changes wouldn’t shock founder Juliette Gordon Low, who embodied girl power before it was cool. Low, a Savannah native, raised eyebrows when she advocated teaching girls about careers and the outdoors when she started the Girl Scouts in 1912.

``Her ideas were quite radical,″ Hessam said.

Maybe so, but some badges Low created in the first Girl Scout Handbook seem outdated today. Girls earned the title Matron Housekeeper by mastering a vacuum cleaner and floor polishing techniques, and identifying various cuts of meat. Members earned a Laundress badge by learning to iron, soften hard water and ``do up a blouse.″ Dairy Maid and Needlewoman badges were other early awards discontinued before 1940.

If the Girl Scouts have updated to keep girls interested _ 2.6 million American girls were members last year _ finding adult volunteers is still a challenge.

That’s why the Georgia ad campaign targeted young single women. Spelman College sophomore Kendall Wilson, 19, recently signed on to help lead a troop in the inner-city Atlanta neighborhood near her campus.

Wilson said she has an easy time relating to her preteen Girl Scouts who might be tempted to quit and give up the totally not-cool green uniform. She’s still a teen-ager herself.

``I want to let them know that a lot of girls don’t stay in it. But I did. Look at me.″


On the Net: www.girlscouts.org