A Girl and Her Pocket Knife
I was raised in a single parent home. We had no money, lived in a crappy neighborhood, and frankly there were many paths I could have gone down, most of them bad. Fortunately for me, I got involved in the Girl Scouts. Even better, I ended up going to Girl Scout camp on some sort of grant. I can still remember the woman who came to our apartment with a brown paper bag containing a couple of used camp uniforms AND a used Girl Scout pocketknife. The little knife smacked of adventure and I was thrilled by the promise that I would soon learn how to use it. A couple of weeks later, that same woman drove me and another girl out to the camp for a two-week stay. I was immediately in heaven. It was a blissful two weeks, filled with making campfires, cooking out, singing, and learning how to lash, swim, shoot a bow and arrow, and last but not least, how to properly handle and respect the little pocketknife. It was a respite from helping to take care of my younger siblings and the beginning of many new and lasting friendships. I continued to go to as a camper for the next four years and then returned as a counselor for two more.
As far as I am concerned, camps are the soul of Girl Scouting. They are the places where girls learn how to be part of a team, to work together to make things happen. To test themselves and learn what they are capable of. To understand that they, too, could build things and problem solve. To realize that the great outdoors was not just the province of boys. That girls were just as capable of starting a fire, lashing together a lean-to, or using a compass. This was pretty heady stuff in the shadow of the Leave it to Beaver years.
The Nightmare Begins
My old council (GSEIWI) in Iowa had a plan--a plan they claimed they had put five years of research into. They would sell the four Iowa camps and use the money to build a “Premier Leadership Center.” This center would address the needs of “Todays Girls” with conveniences like Wi-Fi and flush toilets. The old camps were just too rustic, they said. Girls no longer liked camping, they said. They want buildings with climate control, they said. And at Town Hall meetings devised to get members to buy into the new plan, to pacify any objections, the moderator led us in a chant, “There will always be camping…there will always be camping.”
Well, yeah, sure, if we want to define camping as an overnight at a state park or “indoor camping” at a mall. But what about our beloved camps that had been a valued part of their Iowa communities for years? Certainly, saving these valuable camps in Iowa would just be a matter of convincing the current council board that they were on the verge of making an irreversible and tragic mistake.
The Virus is Everywhere!
So the quest began. Distraught camp alumnae and current council members banded together and set to work. We began to find plenty of research that refuted what the CEO and board had told us. Camp enrollment was actually up across the country, just not at the Girl Scout camps, so surely some kids still loved camping. Perhaps programming and marketing were to blame. The figure that only 10% of the council’s girls used the camps that had been widely distributed to the press was extremely misleading as it referred only to residential summer camping and not the 57% usage if you figured in troop camping during the rest of the year. As for our camps being rustic and outdated, why, it turned out that they already had Internet access and flush toilets. And most disturbing of all, the rush to sell off our treasured camps turned out not to be just a local council issue as we had been led to believe, but had been happening all over the country for the last several years!
The Inception of the Virus (The Grand Re-Brand)
Unfortunately, there has been a seismic shift in Girl-Scouting. Approximately ten years ago, GSUSA decided to cure a dwindling membership, but not by an increased effort to market the wonderful benefits of unplugging our current generation of kids and sending them to camp.
Instead, they rebranded themselves as “the premier leadership organization for girls.” They de-emphasized camping in favor of events like Spa Day, Lock-down Sleepovers at the Mall, and Indoor Camping. Cookie sales, instead of being the means to an end and a way to help fund camps, have now become the end in itself with a huge emphasis on “Financial Literacy” and the addition of thirteen new badges that revolve around money management skills. This from an organization that has badly bungled its own finances and is now reeling from a pension funding disaster.
Council CEOs and CFOs continue to be well paid, and beautiful offices continue to be built for Girl Scout management. According to a 990 for 2010, our GSEIWI CEO made $143,563, plus another $21,000 in compensation, and the council headquarters recently moved into a new office complete with a $600,000 mortgage. As for the National, current big cheese CEO Anna Maria Chavez now brings in a tidy $393,380 per year salary. Even as she and the organization ask Congress for pension relief, they popped $65,000 on an executive bathroom makeover.
Cannibalizing the Camps
So who ends up paying for the guidance of these CEOs and their pretty new buildings? In 2013, GSEIWI (the Iowa Council) raked in $4 million in cookie sales, but then turned around and spent $3 million in salaries. The girls who raised all this revenue are then put in the position of paying for any programming that they wish to participate in as well as shelling out money for badges and the insipid new Journeys books that they use during the year. From what I’ve read, many of the girls do not enjoy the Journeys books, which are very uninspired and too much like school work. As for the camps, which were in the past supported by camp fees and cookie sales with the difference made up by the councils, they are now expected to be money-makers or be sold, or in some cases be sold even if they are “self-sustaining.” It seems the only chance that some of them have to survive is if a “Friends of Camp Whatever” intervenes and raises money and recruits volunteers for that camp. The council boards are washing their hands of financial support for them and selling them off to generate new revenue they can use to help soften the pension plan deficit and build their new “Premier Leadership Centers.”
These Zombies are Not Transparent
Not that I have ever met a transparent Zombie, so why should these be any different? Why, you may ask, hasn’t the membership spoken up if they are so upset by the sales of their camps? Why don’t they just get rid of their boards and start again?
Council CEOs are recruited nationally. They may not have ever had camp experience or been a Girl Scout. The previous board handpicks new council board candidates. Those candidates are then announced and rubberstamped by the membership at an annual meeting (for GSEIWI--other councils may run their elections a little differently). For the most part, their backgrounds are in finance, real estate, and business. Attempting to elect alternate candidates is extremely difficult, if not impossible. No matter how much actual experience an outside candidate may have with Girl Scouting or how qualified they are in other areas, the CEO and board make the election process as difficult as possible for anyone they have not already endorsed. The Girl Scout members don’t necessarily have leadership that conducts itself in a Girl Scout way.
You Can’t Kill a Zombie if You Can’t Find Its Brain
So why not stop whining and just drive a stake through its Zombie brain and be done with it? One, finding the brain has not been easy. At first, the closures of the camps were presented as if GSUSA had had no say in them. In fact, when an Ohio Council wrote to the National Office asking for assistance in helping to keep their camps open, they received the response, “GSUSA states it is unable to intervene in governance issues of local councils because each council is a separate corporation.” It wasn’t until notes were compared among members of various councils that we noticed all the councils closing their camps were using the very same language and misleading statistics to do so. Again and again, council press releases spoke of this being an emotional issue and that closing the camps was “not done lightly,” but the council had to be responsible to the girls of the future.
Also, the reasoning for the camp closures was a mystery. On the local level, we were told it was a financial decision. If you looked at the National mission and goals though, you could see that they had pretty well written out camping as having a place in their new programming. The cookie sales had become the program. Girls were to learn leadership skills through selling boxes and boxes of cookies. But with this new shift, the girls are both funding their local council management and then serving as customers for the Journeys books, badges, programs, and whatever gimmicky sparkly trinkets GSUSA tries to market to them. (Did you know you can buy Girl Scout green press-on nails with a trefoil pattern? Just try opening your pocketknife with those, if you can find a pocketknife to buy.) And then there is the whole pension shortage issue. Did the sale of camps pick up momentum as a quick fix for that?
Two, I don’t really want to kill the zombie Girl Scout organization. Before they succumbed to their corporate trance, they were a powerful force in my life. But I do somehow want to break through their corporate mindset and get them back to serving the girls and not selling to them. Get them to realize that slick advertising and focus groups are not always the answer. Trying to make girls into leaders steeped in financial knowledge by reading books and selling cookies is not the same thing as letting girls develop into well-rounded, ethical people with a good set of problem solving skills that are developed naturally as they play and work together outdoors.
The New Girl Scout Leadership Program may fizzle out just like the New Coke did. The thing is, Coca-Cola was able to quickly bring back Coke Classic once New Coke proved to be a flop. Once the Girl Scouts divest themselves of all their beautiful camps, they will never be able to replace them.
Zombie Voodoo Magic: Girls Will Grow Up to be Leaders Just Like the Boys Because We Say So in Our Fund-Raising Literature
One of the most recent efforts to spring from GSUSA is the over-cleverly named “ToGetHerThere,” whose sole mission is to “create gender-balanced leadership in one generation.” The irony of this effort is mind-boggling. One of the biggest benefits of outdoor camping was that it evened the playing field. You found out you, too, could build things, rough it, problem solve—equal to what the Boy Scouts were doing. Now they want to replace that with safe, climate controlled, resort-like, leadership centers. They have a partnership deal with Mattel/Barbie in the works to sponsor a career exploration program for girls. And of course Mattel/Barbie will help work with the Girl Scouts to promote a healthy body image for girls in return. Right. Can’t wait to see how that works.
Surviving the Girl Scout Zombie Apocalypse
It is an uphill battle, but there have been a few bright spots. In Alabama members elected nine grass-roots members to their council board after a seven-hour annual meeting, and a few camps have been saved through the efforts of volunteer “friends” groups. Lawsuits have several of the camp sales in limbo. As GSUSA lobbies Congress to help resolve their pension funding problems and has had HR 2134, The Charitable Pension Flexibility Act of 2013, introduced, Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley has written a letter asking for inquires into massive camp closures and questioning what any new funding would specifically go to. There is also a change.org petition echoing his questions. Please read and consider signing!
Also, visit www.soscamps.weebly.com for the latest news, both in our council (GSEIWI) and across the U.S. There is a state-by-state listing of camps that have closed since the councils began their realignment process in 2006.
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