When girls attending programs for at-risk youth at Four Oaks were asked if they’d like to join the Girl Scouts, at first many of them scoffed.
“Some of the girls said Girl Scouts wasn’t for them, because it’s for ‘the rich kids,’” said Janet Choplick, membership outreach manager for the Girl Scouts office in Cedar Rapids.
The girls had good reason for their perception - Choplick said there are several income-based challenges that have acted as barriers to keep girls from joining scouts in the past. Those include not being able to afford the $15 per year membership fee, the cost of the uniform, not having a parent available to volunteer as troop leader and not having transportation to troop meetings.
The Girl Scouts is working to overcome those barriers to scouting in Eastern Iowa with an outreach program focused on low income and otherwise underserved girls.
The initiative, now entering its third year in the Corridor, has set up non-traditional troops at 46 locations in Linn and Johnson Counties. Most troops utilize staff members instead of parent volunteers to lead the troops. If a parent steps forward, the troop can be transitioned to a more traditional troop model.
Girls don’t need to buy uniforms to join - some of the new troops have matching t-shirts sponsored by area businesses. The $15 membership fee is often waived, especially for girls who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. Many of the troops are run as weekly or bi-weekly after-school programs at the girls’ schools or at community centers in their neighborhoods, to cut down on transportation challenges. Many are run at Four Oaks centers around Cedar Rapids, and there is one at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program shelter in Iowa City.
“Tomorrow’s leader could be sitting right there,” Choplick said. “But if no one makes a difference in that girl's life, she may never get there.”
The program served 800 area girls in its first year. This school year they’re on track to serve 1,400 girls, Choplick said.
“We never turn a girl away based on ability to pay,” Choplick said. “That can’t be the reason the girl didn’t participate.”
Another challenge is running the annual cookie sales, a hallmark of Girl Scouts programming and a major fundraiser for the organization. However, some girls may not have parents available to take them door-to-door, or they may live in neighborhoods where door-to-door sales might not be safe. So the Girl Scouts has set up cookie booths at area businesses for some troops to use instead of door-to-door sales.
Beyond the troop meetings and the cookie sales, the Girl Scouts holds day camps and special programs that bring together girls from both traditional and nontraditional troops.
Last Monday and Tuesday, around 35 girls gathered at the Girl Scouts Cedar Rapids Area Leadership Center for a “Snow Babies” day camp, focused on the environment and learning about arctic animals.
“I like making projects,” said day camp participant Ashantie Tyler, a Van Buren Elementary School second grader. “And I make friends.”
She listed the friends she’d made in Girl Scouts. That’s part of the goal, Choplick said.
“We teach the girls to be a sister to every Girl Scout. Cliques form,” she said. “This helps break down those barriers a little bit.”Learn more: http://girlscoutstoday.org/