Beyond Cookies: Girl Scouts at 95

There was more than just crinkled song booklets and the smell of sunscreen unifying the 120,000 Girl Scouts gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Saturday. Ninety-five years of history bound them together.

The not-quite-centennial anniversary coincides with a revamp of the all-American organization, which is facing declining membership.

Today's girls are increasingly opting out of participation in the Girl Scouts. Over the last five years, the Girl Scouts say they have lost about 4 percent of their 2.7 million membership nationwide.

American girls are an expanding group thanks to population growth, but 125,000 fewer scouts have hit the nature trail since 2001. Many leave as they enter their teenage years, making retention a major problem. Without these young women involved in the program, the image of Girl Scouts as "cool" becomes a harder sell to the younger generation.

In 1912, Juliette Gordon Low launched the inaugural troop of 18 girls in Savannah, Ga. Since then, more than 50 million girls have passed through the ranks, dealing cookies since almost the beginning.

Ask a room full of women today how many were once Girl Scouts and the figures become real, said Patricia Diaz Dennis, chair of the Girl Scout's National Board of Directors. The challenge, she said, is keeping the organization as relevant now as it was to the lives of the those who came before them.

"We've always been about leadership. We've been known as cookies and crafts and camping," said Dennis. "We are going to start touting more that we're really a great leadership program. It's not about leadership as in the president of a company, but it's also about leading your own life so that you're the best mom, or the best firefighter you can be because you've been through the Girl Scout experience."

But if young girls want to be CEOs, that's fine, too, Diaz Dennis said. The group's research shows that Girl Scout alumnae represent 53 percent of female business owners and 70 percent of women serving in Congress.

The Girl Scouts organization leadership knows it has to reach the next generation in a new way and not simply rest on tradition.

"We also have to shift so that we can capture the demographic market in our country, which is Latinas and Hispanics," said Dennis, a Latina herself who speaks Spanish.

At the Mall singalong Saturday, the actress who voices the cartoon character Dora the Explorer belted out lyrics in her signature high-pitched Spanish.

The competitive market for children's time creates scout dropouts. Rasheeda Smith, 13, from Philadelphia, has been a Girl Scout for five years, but now she also has student government, chess club and double-dutch team commitments. Troop leaders are encouraged to be flexible with scheduling the weekly meetings instead of insisting on the scouts' traditional 4 p.m. on Tuesday's format.

"On certain days it gives me something to do instead of going out in the streets," said Smith.

And in keeping with American girls' growing interest in fashion at younger and younger ages, the official scout uniform also has been reduced to a tiny pin, though full regalia are still available.

Most of the 120,000 Girl Scouts came to the D.C. weekend event decked out in coordinated troop outfits that can only be described as all out cute warfare -- polka dot bandanas, floral bucket hats, and T-shirts tie-dyed, cut and beaded to perfection. A folksy guitarist onstage described the crowd as colorful jellybeans filling the slopes of the Washington Monument.

Lexi Botts, 13, fiddles with a cell phone sparkling with pink and diamond rhinestones that form a princess crown across the cover. Her most memorable Girl Scout perk remains horseback riding, while she points out scholarships and camp as other payoffs.

Botts points to character traits as the top lesson from Girl Scouts -- not the hodgepodge of skills learned through the wide ranging activities troops can pursue.

"The main thing is how to really respect people," said Botts. The members of Troop 2285 from Arlington Heights, Ill., have been together since kindergarten. Over time, the troop's finances and internal dynamics have become more complicated -- like the Girl Scout organization itself, which is now trying to downsize the number of administrative regional councils nationwide.

Troop Mom Janet Gianelli said, "Even within girls they don't all get along, but they've learned so many good qualities that help them. As the troop grows up, they have to make decisions about how to spend their money and that responsibility affects how they treat each other."

Earlier, Botts responded to a question about scout values and teen popularity contests. "If people are mean to you, be nice to them even if they're not nice. We won't be like that."

The official Girl Scout Promise, which is chanted at meetings, vows to "serve God and country." It has spurred the formation of alternative, but similar social groups. The phrase triggered a lawsuit almost two decades ago that now allows girls to substitute "God" for whatever word applies to their beliefs.

Some parents still find the group too exclusive of different religions, and others think it too secular. The American Heritage Girls, formed 12 years ago in Ohio, appeals to conservative families by emphasizing faith. The fledgling Spiral Scouts, founded in Washington State in 2001, draws on nature spirituality with druid-like collars as part of their dress uniforms. Many alternatives exist, but their total numbers represent a sliver of a sliver of the Girl Scouts' total active membership.