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Girl Scouts Mark the First Century of Girl Power
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March 12, 2012
PLEASANTVILLE — The fall of 1958 was a big year for Jean Havens.
As a new fifth-grader, she was leaving her school on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in western New York, where she grew up, for the newly integrated local Gowanda Central School District.
It was an exciting, but somewhat intimidating, time for Havens. The transition, she said, was made easier by something she said she had never known before: the Girl Scouts.
Joining the Girl Scouts, which celebrates its 100th birthday this week, helped her integrate with her new schoolmates, she said.
“It was a great way to get to know these girls who had been together for five years, and to interact with them outside of the classroom in fun activities,” said Havens, who started working full time for the organization in 1978, and now serves as the director of communications for the Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson Inc. “And the cookie sales got you to be out in the community, interacting with people.”
From Hillary Clinton to Katie Couric to the newly minted IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Girl Scouting has touched the lives of more than 50 million women. It was founded 100 years ago in Savannah, Ga., by Juliette Gordon Low. The organization’s mission to develop “girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place,” continues to resonate.
Today, the Pleasantville-headquartered Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson Inc. will celebrate the organization’s historic week with a centennial gala honoring Women of Leadership and Excellence at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tarrytown. Honorees include actress Vanessa Williams and Rep. Nita Lowey. The council was formed in October 2007 by combining five councils, and serves girls in a seven-county region of Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester.
Juliette Gordon Low, born in 1860, was athletic — excelling at rowing, swimming and tennis. At age 26, she married William Mackay Low, a wealthy Englishman, and divided her time between the two countries. During the Spanish-American War, in 1898, Low came back to America to aid in the war effort, helping her mother organize a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers returning from Cuba. But by the time she returned home to her husband, her marriage had begun to disintegrate. In 1905, in the midst of a divorce, her husband died.
Page Low later discovered that he had left most of his fortune to his mistress. In an unusual move for the time, Low contested the will, and won.
“Juliette Low was a very courageous woman who stood up for her rights,” said Pamela Anderson, the CEO of Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson.
Low spent years looking for something meaningful to do. In 1911, a meeting with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England, changed her life as she became interested in the new youth movement.
On March 12, 1912, Juliette Low gathered 18 girls to register the first troop of American Girl Guides in Savannah. The following year, Low changed the name to Girl Scouts to create a uniquely American identity, said Havens.
In 1916, Gordon enlisted her goddaughter and Pleasantville resident Anne Hyde Choate to organize the first Girl Scout council in Westchester County. A troop had been organized the previous year.
“The council was important because it gave troop leaders a chance to meet with each other, share ideas and coordinate townwide Girl Scout activities,” Havens said. “This enabled the girls to meet other girls beyond just those in their troop.”
Choate was elected national president of the Girl Scout organization in 1920, succeeding Low.
Fiona Brennan, a troop leader from Pleasantville, where her 7-year-old twin daughters, Ella and Kate, are Daisies — the youngest members of the Girl Scouts (from Low’s nickname “Daisy”) — said the historic connection to Pleasantville makes the experience all the more special to her.
“I like that it promotes sound, ethical values and I get to do hands-on activities with my children and their friends,” she said.
The national Girl Scout membership reached an all-time high in 1969, with 3.9 million members. The organization saw a gradual decline in numbers through the years, with a current enrollment of about 3.6 million.
Rachael Rumore, a troop leader from Mahopac, said she enrolled her daughter Megan, 10, because she wanted her to be part of the “girl power movement.”“It gives us many opportunities to show what girls can do,” said Rumore, who was certified in archery and ropes through workshops held by the Girl Scouts. She teaches at the Rock Hill Girl Scout Camp in Mahopac. “I want my daughter to be a confident and contributing leader in the world.”
For Mary Ryker of Tappan, whose daughter Emily will receive a Gold Award — the highest Girl Scouts award — later this month, it is a proud moment. She and her co-leader Brian Lyons, spent 12 years taking the girls camping, on service projects, and teaching life skills.
“Our troop has been feeding the homeless at the Piermont Reformed Church through a program called Safe Haven. The guests sleep at the church and are fed a delicious hot meal donated by volunteers,” Ryker said. “The troop always cooks the meal, serves and cleans up.”
For his involvement with the troop, Lyons, a patrolman with the Orangtown Police Department, endures some good-natured ribbing from his collegues.
“They calls us the ‘Fighting 29’— the toughest Girl Scouts troop,” said Lyons, who has two daughters in the Troop 40029. “But I draw the line at wearing a skirt.”
Tonight, 16-year-old Marissa Contento of Briarcliff Manor will receive the Young Woman of Leadership Award for her years of leadership in community projects and her academic excellence.
Contento counts her project, “Hope for Teen Mothers,” which helps unwed mothers obtain their GED diplomas, as her favorite. The program, implemented at the North Central Bronx Hospital, with the help of a GED instructor, provides mothers with supplies for their children while they pursue their diplomas.
“I feel a lot of sympathy for these mothers, they were in high school when they got pregnant,” said Contento, who aspires to become a doctor. “They are working so hard to complete their GEDs and also trying to support their children.”