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.

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