When you think of Girl Scouts, you might picture a little girl in beret and sash, selling shortbread cookies. And you might be right.

But in Oak Park and River Forest, the 1,500 girls and over 300 adult leaders that form approximately 100 troops have become the envy of Girl Scouts in Illinois.

“Oak Park is very successful,” said Rosita Rice, director of membership and programs for Girl Scouts Illinois Crossroads Council. “They are a model for other communities because they’ve had success getting volunteers to step into key positions. It takes a lot of communication and a lot of making sure the needs of girls are being met within the community.”

Girl Scouts Illinois Crossroads Council, which stretches from the Wisconsin border to Riverside and from Lake Michigan to Fox Lake is in the process of restructuring its geographical divisions. What used to be more than 45 “Service Units” are condensing into 15 “VISTAS” (Volunteer Information Support and Training Areas) based on zip code. Forest Park will now be grouped with Oak Park and River Forest in “VISTA 9.”

“I’m excited about adding Forest Park,” said Judy Bradeen, one of the key leaders responsible for Oak Park’s success. Bradeen, along with Sue Steffen and Donna Ioppolo, hold monthly meetings for all area troop leaders at the Girl Scout Oak Park Center on Roosevelt Road, where they plan a menu of activities, and yes, successfully recruit volunteers.

An important new communications vehicle has been the Yahoo! group e-mail list of troop leaders. VISTA 9 managers send meeting minutes and important information to all area troop leaders, enabling them to participate in VISTA-sponsored events more easily.

Considerate and caring

Bradeen, Steffen and Ioppolo are volunteers themselves, who otherwise hold part or full-time jobs, but value the tradition of Girl Scouting. “I think we have a strong community of people here who like camping and cookies, but they also want to serve their community,” explained Bradeen.

And serve their community they do. Each fall, over 40 troops participate in a food drive for the Oak Park/River Forest Food Pantry, housed at First United Church on Lake Street. Girl Scouts go door-to-door to nearly every house in Oak Park and River Forest collecting canned and boxed goods. After transporting them to the pantry, older Girl Scouts help sort and shelve the gleanings for future clients.

Food Pantry Coordinators Kathy Russell and Anne Wakely estimate the Girl Scouts collected 20,000 pounds of food this year. “Now we have a nice variety of items to give clients,” commented Russell. (Over 200 families are served monthly at the pantry.)

Another major service project is the annual holiday toy drive for children. As in the past, Girl Scouts hope to collect over 1,500 toys in drop boxes scattered throughout the community between Nov. 19 and Dec. 14. They will wrap the gifts and then donate them to Fraternite Notre Dame, located in Austin, for their annual Christmas party for underprivileged children.

Throughout the year, individual troops also plan their own service projects such as singing for senior citizens, making PADS lunches, volunteering at the Animal Care League or planting bulbs.

Courageous and strong

Kathy Slowiak, an Oak Park troop leader (along with Ioppolo) for seven ninth grade, senior-level Girl Scouts, thinks service appeals to some girls, but that others see Girl Scouts as an adventure. “It’s an opportunity to try something challenging that they haven’t experienced before. The girls have gone rock climbing and skiing; they’ve done things they never would have done otherwise.”

Whether they’re called “try-its,” “badges,” or “interest projects,” at each level the girls earn patches to sew on their sashes or vests, showing the world they’ve accomplished something new or different.

Many girls try camping, horseback riding and s’mores for the first time through Girl Scouts. Nearly every troop has a story to tell about camping in cold weather. Slowiak’s experience took place in teepees instead of tents at Happy Hollow, a Girl Scout program center in Elkhorn, Wis.

“The proudest moment for our girls was when we were there Columbus Day weekend three years ago,” she said. “The temperature dropped below freezing. When we woke up there was ice in the water pail at the fire ring in the morning. We survived. So now we can do anything.”

Girl Scouts themselves see time with friends as a membership perk. Christine Slowiak, age 14, who started out as a brownie, has advanced to the senior level. “I have a lot of friends in Girl Scouts. We have so much fun and so many memories. . . . It’s just really cool.”

Oak Park/River Forest Girl Scouts have organized ice skating and swimming parties for community troops as well as a Camporee every fall at Wild Rose, a Girl Scout program center in St. Charles. The girls go hiking, play games, make crafts and begin and end the weekend with a flag ceremony.

Bradeen credited the volunteer troop leaders who help plan many VISTA 9 offerings. “It would never work without the leaders,” she emphasized.

Rice admitted that with more mothers in the work force, finding volunteers can be difficult. “But this VISTA spreads the workload among many,” she said.

“If volunteers share jobs by dividing up work, everything becomes more manageable,” added Bradeen.

Troop leaders are asked to jump through a few hoops in order to guide a troop. Training is required for each level (brownie, junior, cadette and senior) as well as outdoor training for camping and CPR/first aid certification. Much of this now takes place on-line through Oak Park’s Jenny Roen, new leader orientation specialist.

Girl Scouts are also notorious for paperwork, permission slips, registration forms, health forms and on and on. However, much of this is being simplified with on-line access.

Peggy Sinko, Oak Park’s volunteer registrar, used to be the princess of paperwork, but now trains leaders to register their own troops on-line. A member of Girl Scouts for nearly 50 years, Sinko continues her involvement because, “I know, firsthand, the difference it can make in a girl’s life.”

The cookie queen

Of the countless volunteers who have devoted time and energy to Girl Scouts, Kathy Marifjeren might be most dedicated; for 16 years she has been Girl Scout cookie coordinator in the Oak Park area. Explained Marifjeren, “I think it’s important for the success of the girls and the programs to provide continuity year after year.”

Marifjeren also tries to share some of her volunteer workload, particularly when it becomes weighty. Last year 10 adults and 72 helpers sorted and moved over 8,500 cases of cookies for 84 troops.

The Girl Scout cookie sale begins every January and finishes in March with site sales at local businesses. Selling thin mints, caramel delights and more, Girl Scouts meet and greet the public to raise money for their troops as well as the Illinois Crossroads Council.

But according to Marifjeren, girls learn far more than how to sell cookies through their involvement with Girl Scouts. “They learn leadership, commitment, acceptance, in an environment where all girls are valued and respected for what they bring to the troop.”

Marifjeren, who also led her daughter’s troop for eight years, continued, “When I had a troop, I wanted to create a place where cliques were forgotten, at least during the meeting or [field trip]. Every girl was safe and knew she belonged there.”

Respecting others

Girl Scouts distinguish themselves in their unabashed celebration of diversity. To begin, Girl Scouts Illinois Crossroads Council’s mission and vision statement reads, “[We are] committed to excellence and enriched by pluralism.”

According to the Council’s website, their Contemporary Awareness Program for adolescent girls is available for use through schools and community centers. It addresses significant issues such as bullying, discrimination, hate crimes, media messages and more. An anti-bias curriculum called “Making Connections” about race/ethnicity, class, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, abilities and prejudice is one of the available course options.

Many of the Oak Park/River Forest troops reflect the diversity of the community. Eliza Grahnke, age 14, has been a member of Claudia Wood’s River Forest troop since she was in second grade. Grahnke’s Down Syndrome hasn’t stopped her from joining in camping, crafts and even sledding. “She has certainly caught the spirit of fun with Girl Scouts,” noted her mother, Gwen Gotsch.

Making the world a better place

For those who choose to remain in Girl Scouts throughout middle and high school, the prospect of earning the silver and/or gold awards can be an enticement. Going for the gold in Girl Scouting is on a par with becoming an eagle scout in Boy Scouts. Nationally, only 6 percent of senior Girl Scouts achieve this distinction.

Earning each award involves completing many requirements that culminate in a larger community service project. Consequently, at an age when it might be easy to become egocentric, the girls develop a healthy dose of altruism.

Frances Kraft, a River Forest troop leader for six eighth grade cadettes, has been guiding them toward the silver award with co-leader Jeanne Calabrese. Kraft’s daughter Grace, age 13, volunteered during the summer at the Trailside Museum along with her friend Elizabeth Froelich. The two are planning a special day to teach children how to deal with wildlife. “Trailside has been my best experience with Girl Scouts,” commented Grace.

Three girls in Slowiak and Ioppolo’s ninth grade Oak Park troop painted a 30-foot mural in a cheerless room at Wonder Works Children’s Museum in order to complete their silver award. “The girls came up with this mural with animals and flora and butterflies and insects,” said Slowiak. “They had to get approval from the museum board. Then when they were all set to go, they got their paint through Oak Park’s paint disposal program.”

Is Studio 2B too much?

In 2004, Girl Scouts of the United States of America introduced a new middle and high school program called Studio 2B. 2B stands for “to become, to belong, to believe, to build.” Instead of working toward badges for a vest or sash, girls work toward charms for a bracelet or pin by reading and discussing booklets about topics such as self-defense, personal finance and travel.

The jury is out on this new development, which caused a flurry of criticism among troop leaders who preferred the traditional cadette and senior programs. Today, most leaders pick and choose what they prefer from each program, often working on the silver or gold award while studying a few Studio 2B booklets.

“The whole idea is to give back and be good people,” said Kraft. “I think that’s what’s at the core.”

To join or lead a troop contact Judy Bradeen at jab1022@aol.com. To donate to the Toy Drive contact Patty Traina at trainawynn@aol.com.

Freelancer writer Lisa Files was a Girl Scout troop leader for four years and has been the food drive coordinator for the last three.

Girl Scout Law

I will do my best to be honest
and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout.

Girl Scout Levels

Daisy Grades K-1
Brownie Grades 1-3
Junior Grades 3-6
Cadette (or Studio 2B) Grades 6-9
Senior (or Studio 2B) Grades 9-12

Recipe for S’mores

2 graham crackers
1 chocolate bar
1-2 marshmallows grilled over an open fire

Use the graham crackers as your bread and the chocolate and toasted marshmallow as filling. Take large bites.

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