Dutton’s Dirty Diggers

Finding programs to keep teenagers in Girl Scouting has always been a challenge. The four Senior Roundups may be the best known of these programs, but they certainly were not the only ones.

Three years ago I was introduced to the Senior Girl Scout Archaeological Camps. Between 1947 and 1957, over 300 Seniors (high-school age) participated. The University of Utah Press has just published a history of this early STEM program. Dutton’s Dirty Diggers, by Catherine S. Fowler.

Dr. Fowler participated in several expeditions and, like many other veterans of the program, chose to pursue a career in anthropology. She uses her own diaries from the program and those of several other participants to take readers out to the dusty desert, bumping along in vehicles that blew tires several times each day.

The program offered two-week long camping caravans and archaeological excavations that introduced teenage girls to the rich cultural and scientific heritage of the American Southwest as well as new career possibilities. Unlike the Roundups, girls could participate several times, allowing them to follow the painstaking progress of the selected sites.

The star of the book is Dr. Bertha Dutton, a curator at the Museum of New Mexico who served as trip leader. The girls’ respect and affection for Dr. Dutton is evident throughout the book, and many of the girls stayed in touch with her for years.

The National Parks Service has developed classroom materials on “Bert” and the Girl Scout program.

https://www.nps.gov/teachers/classrooms/scouts-shovels-bertha-dutton.htm

GSUSA ended the program after 1957, judging the experimental program a success. Staff at GSUSA announced that it was time for local councils to sponsor similar programs. Without Dr. Dutton’s charisma and intense involvement in the curriculum, local archaeological programs failed to take hold.

The fully illustrated book is a fun read and available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

The volume is already getting positive reviews!

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

From Blair House to Brown Owl

Tradition holds that the president-elect spends the night before his inauguration at Blair House, the “President’s Guest House” at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

an ivory stone townhouse with white trim, green shutters and a US flag
Blair House (Carol Highsmith)

But what do you know about the Blairs?  The family produced several prominent American statesmen—and one very spunky Girl Scout leader, Edith Blair Staton.

Edith’s grandfather, Montgomery Blair (1813-1883), studied law at my alma mater, Transylvania University in Lexington, KY, and his most famous client was the fugitive slave Dred Scott. Blair moved to Washington in 1852 and became Lincoln’s Postmaster General in 1861.

The family’s “country house,” Falkland, was the earliest residence in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Today, Montgomery Blair is the namesake of one of the largest high schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.

black and white headshot of a white woman

Edith arrived at Blair House on September 6, 1896, and was the last baby born at the residence. She married a young naval officer, Adolphus Staton, on July 28, 1917.

(Edith Blair Staton, 1916 passport photo)

While her husband was at sea, the young bride took the helm of a Girl Scout troop. When the girls were preparing for their first camping trip and realized they had no bedrolls or other equipment, Edith went to her hope chest, stored in her attic of her parents’ home, and took her brand new wedding linen into the woods!

Edith threw herself into Girl Scouting and met founder Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah in 1922, where Daisy taught her how to stand on her head.

gold circle pin with a Brownie elf and two enameled brown owl pins

When Girl Scout leaders decided to adapt the British Brownie program for younger girls in the United States, Edith was recruited to help launch the program. She organized the first Brownie “Pow-Wow” for prospective leaders in November 1922. She had the perfect venue for a large meeting–Manor Country Club. Her uncle’s club was about to open and the meeting offered a good dress rehearsal opportunity for the staff.

Top: Brownie membership pin (1920s-1930s)

Left: Great Brown Owl (leader, 1930s)

Right: Tawny Owl (assistant leader, 1930s)

Edith Blair Staton thus became the first Great Brown Owl, the main Brownie leader for the United States.

Edith remained active in Girl Scouting for most of her adult life. She was a member of the advisory committee for the Rockwood National Camp and served as president of the District of Columbia council.

Edith passed away in 2001, at the age of 104. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her husband, Admiral Staton.

©2021 Ann Robertson

Snowy Days at Camp

Snow has begun to fall here in Washington, DC. It’s the first of the season and forecast to be “significant,” which in our Nation’s Capital means about two inches.

Of course, it is still 2020, which means anything could happen, such as rabid polar bears floating downward from the heavens.

This makes today the perfect time to bring out one of my favorite entries in the “what’s the worst that can happen?” file.

Once upon a time, a troop of Intermediate Girl Scouts went to Camp Potomac Woods for a cozy weekend trip. It was February (February 1958, to be precise) and bound to be cold, but the hardy girls were staying in a lodge, not tents, and they would have an oil furnace to keep everyone toasty.

The girls of Troop 163 hauled their gear and rations to the lodge Friday night, made dinner and turned in for bed, after copious cups of cocoa, of course.

Saturday morning, everyone was up early. The absolute, best thing that can happen on a camping trip was right outside the lodge. SNOW!

SNOW!!!

BEST. TRIP. EVER.!!

The girls had a blast. They had dressed for February and spent the day outside. They made snow balls and snow Scouts. After dinner, the leaders sent them off to bed, but nobody could sleep. There was SNOW outside!

Each girl had brought a cup on a string as a standard part of their mess kits. Not only could these fine implements be used for cocoa, they could be silently tossed out a window and drug back in … full of snow … for an indoor snowball fight! Little sleeping was done that night.

Before the sun was up on Sunday the girls were praying that they would be snowed in another day.

But that was going to be a problem, as they’d only brought food for a two-night stay.

Mrs. Steeger and Mrs. Smith, the leaders, conferred with the camp’s resident caretaker. After several phone calls, they learned that the road to the camp, located in Lucketts, Virginia, was impassible.

What to do?

Relax, these are GIRL SCOUTS were are talking about. A group trained to be level-headed and resourceful.

They did what anyone would do in similar circumstances.

They called the US Army.

Helicopter pilots W.C. Hampton and Raymond Bowers flew in from Ft. Belvoir, alighting in a field partly cleared by the caretaker.

The troop was too large to all fit, so the pilots made two runs, taking all of 15 minutes each.

Troop 163 Evacuates Camp Potomac Woods (GSCNC Archives)

Safe on the ground, they posed for photos with their rescuers, before heading home.

You know they had a great story to tell their friends at school.

Safe on the ground with their rescuers (GSCNC Archives)

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Turkey on a Train

When the White House wanted a nice, fresh turkey for Thanksgiving dinner in 1925, they opted for delivery.

But instead of Door Dash or another nearby delivery service, President and Mrs. Coolidge turned to their home state, Vermont, and one of their favorite civic groups.

First Lady Grace Coolidge had been an enthusiastic Girl Scout since her husband was vice president. Now Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, Mrs. Coolidge tried to incorporate Girl Scouts into White House events whenever possible. The Washington organization was in the midst of a $20,000 fund drive, and a Thanksgiving-related photo call would be great for publicity.

She ordered a Vermont turkey, from a family friend in East Montpelier, and the First Lady wanted it delivered—-and cooked—-by a Girl Scout.

Thirteen-year-old Leona Baldwin was chosen for this mission, as the 20-lb turkey hailed from her family farm. Leona had never travelled beyond her hometown, so her leader, Laura Gould, accompanied her on the long train ride. They departed on November 6.

Moderately relevant photo from Alabama restaurant

After their adventure in Washington, they planned to make a stop in New York City on the way home. (The turkey did not have a round-trip ticket.)

No account of the trip clarifies whether the turkey traveled with a ticket, in a crate, or in a roasting pan.

Upon arrival, Leona and Mrs. Gould were whisked away from Union Station and taken to the Girl Scout Little House at 1750 New York Avenue NW.

The Little House was a recent gift from the Better Homes of America and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. It was modeled after the house that inspired the “Home Sweet Home” song and contained a working kitchen, furnished dining room, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathroom.

Leona inspected the kitchen and was no doubt relieved to learn that a team of 19 local girls would be there to assist. Newspaper reports of the time do not mention where Leona, Mrs. Gould, or the turkey spent the evening.

The next morning, Leona and Mrs. Gould went to the Tivioli Theater, which was holding a benefit performance of the comedy “Cold Turkey” for the Girl Scouts. Leona met Mrs. Coolidge, for the first time.

After the film ended, the dignitaries moved on for dinner. In addition to the Coolidges, the guest list included Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who had secured the building for the Girl Scouts; May Flather, head of Girl Scouts in Washington, DC; J.S. Storrow, national president of the Boy Scouts; and Dean Sarah Arnold, national president of the Girl Scouts.

President and Mrs. Coolidge arrive at the Little House, November 7, 1925
National Photo/Library of Congress

The girls gathered in the dining room and, once everyone was seated, began to serve.

Leona’s glistening turkey rested on a sideboard. When she passed the platter to the President, “Silent Cal” commented, “Thank you. It looks very good.”

Aside from Leona, the other girls were local. Lucille Weber and Margaret Strong, for example, were hostesses. Marian Bates, of Troop 42, was in charge of circulating the cream and sugar, while Phyllis Adelman, also from Troop 42, had celery and carrot duty. Everyone was nervous.

Marian and I bumped each other, spilling cream on the President’s coat. We cleaned it off as best we could and Grace Coolidge was so kind. … Cal ignored the whole thing!

Recollections of Phyllis Adelman Larson, GSCNC Archives.

Newspaper accounts of this most memorable dinner focus exclusively on Leona, using extremely outdated language that makes the dinner seem like an installment of the “Perils of Pauline.”

Leona collapsed after the luncheon was over. The honor and excitement had been too great. A little heart had beaten too wildly and had signaled to a set of taut nerves that it was time for reaction. Hysteria, the price of Leona’s glory, ensued.

Solicitous Scout leaders gathered around the little Vermont girl, and after much nursing and petting and drying of tears, brought her back to emotional stability.

Washington Post (November 8, 1925): 1.

And what of the other 19 girls?

They hardly were standing by taking selfies. In fact, given the limited capacity of the Little House, THEY were probably the ones giving aid.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Patch from Making Friends

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Nix on Partisanship

Girl Scouts of the USA strives to create conscientious future voters who appreciate the unique qualities of the American political system.

From the founding of Girl Scouts in 1912, girls could earn badges that involved learning about their government, laws, and elections.

After women received the right to vote 100 years ago, Girl Scouts stepped in to help anyway they could. Sometimes an act as simple as holding a baby while mother goes into the voting booth can make a difference in turnout.

There are clear limits on political involvement. The Blue Book–GSUSA’s collection of bylaws, policies, and the corporate constitution–states the following:

Blue Book, 2020 edition, page 20

Individual Girl Scouts may engage in partisan political activities, but only as civilians. They cannot appear in uniform, as that would suggest the organization has endorsed a particular candidate or expressed an opinion on a public issue.

A Little Too Active

Sometimes good intentions may get out of hand, as happened during the 1960 Presidential Election.

It seems that Intermediate* Troops 670 and 702 from Bethesda, Maryland, loved to do community service projects. When their leader, Mrs. Smith heard that the Volunteers for Nixon-Lodge headquarters needed help, she immediately signed the girls up. The field trip to 1000 16th Street NW in Washington did not raise any red flags among parents, as most were Republicans themselves.

*In 1963, the Intermediate level was divided in Juniors (grades 4-6) and Cadettes (grades 7-9).

A dozen girls, in their green uniforms, yellow ties, and jaunty berets, had a blast at the campaign office. They stuffed envelopes; assembled press releases; and filled campaign kits with buttons and bumper stickers.

Vice President Nixon’s press secretary, Herbert G. Klein called the Washington Post to suggest that there was a great photo opportunity happening at campaign headquarters. A campaign staffer had tipped off Klein and said the girls might be working at the Kennedy-Johnson office another day.

A witty local reporter asked the girls whether “some people might not regard Nixon’s defeat as a community service,” the girls giggled and confidently stated, “Kennedy isn’t going to be elected.”

The girls had put in about four hours of work when a telephone rang; the caller asked for Mrs. Smith. In fact, the caller was Helaine Todd, executive director of the National* Capital Area Girl Scout Council.

*Also in 1963, the National Capital Girl Scout Council and four other councils combined to form the Nation’s Capital Girl Scout Council.

Todd was a tad upset. She informed Mrs. Smith that “Partisan political activity is absolutely against local and national Girl Scout policy. ” Todd also declared that the girls could not count the day toward service hours. (That seems a bit over the top, in my opinion.)


CanStockPhoto, Inc.

Mrs. Smith, a relatively new leader, was “flabbergasted and aghast.” She grabbed the girls and swiftly exited. At the next troop meeting, she turned the experience into a learning opportunity, explaining what she had done wrong.

Of course, Nixon lost in 1960. Much could–and has–been said about Richard Nixon. But I must give the Nixon family credit for being strong supporters of Girl Scouts–before and after their White House years.

Both Nixon daughters, Julie and Tricia, were active Girl Scouts and future First Lady Pat Nixon was their co-leader.

Mrs. Nixon greets Cadette Girl Scouts at GSUSA Headquarters (Nixon Foundation)

Mrs. Nixon greatly enjoyed her time as honorary national president of GSUSA, welcoming girls to the White House and visiting the national headquarters in New York.

Since Edith Wilson in 1917, all First Ladies have been invited to serve as honorary national president. All Most accept it graciously and participate in unique ways.

Mrs. Nixon’s affection for the Girl Scouts endured until her death.

Pat Nixon welcomes Girl Scouts to the Nixon Library, July 1990 (Nixon Foundation)

The Nixon Foundation has honored her work with a special exhibition.

Check the GSUSA Blog for information about the current honorary national president and her involvement with Girl Scouts.

Or maybe not ….

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Blank Spots and Black Holes

Let’s do a quick experiment: what history information appears on your council’s website?

Go to your council’s website and click on “Our Council” then “About Our Council. The wording may vary slightly.

If those are not an option, try “About GS” then “Our History.”

Not affiliated with a particular council? Don’t know which council is currently yours? Not a problem. Go to the GSUSA Council Finder page and click on any state.

You should arrive on a page that looks like this:

It has a nice history of the Girl Scout movement. It is concise, and more info is available through a link. I like the photo of Juliette Gordon Low with an early troop and her personal flag.

But at the moment you’re looking at a council website, not GSUSA. Do you see any council history? It does not have to be lengthy, Southwest Indiana, for example, adds a paragraph specific to them following the national history:

I’ve found very little local history on council sites.

If your selected council has a museum, its hours and specifics are probably listed. There may be a sentence or two with information for prospective researchers. There might be a sentence that specifies the year in which that council was created. But wait … something is missing.

About 90 years of history.

Do you see anything about Girl Scouting between 1912 and 2008? Anything about the Realignment program or at least a list of the legacy councils that combined to create the current council?

Cue the crickets and try not to fall into that gaping chasm.

Illustration 95575932 © Orlando Florin RosuDreamstime.com

Only One Shade of Green

Beginning in 2015, GSUSA’s Customer Engagement Initiative standardized council websites. As someone who frequently visits websites of multiple councils, I find it very easy to navigate. I imagine it is cost effective for councils as well.

But I’ve noticed a troubling change in content in the past few months. Most council sites have a history page with the exact same three paragraphs on the history of the movement. I can see where that would be useful to introduce Girl Scouts to non-members.

But what happened to council histories? If there is a page or even a paragraph on council history, I cannot find much beyond the date the council was created. Where have all the legacy councils gone? It is difficult to even find the name of a legacy council--those 300+ councils consolidated into 112 a decade ago.

Instead, council descriptions enumerate counties covered today. Again, useful information, but only part of the story.   There is a gaping chasm in history between 1912 and 2008. 

I contacted GSUSA with this question and was told that councils have complete control over the content of their site. Really?

What about this statement, which was included in the 2017 Stewardship Report?

GSUSA, 2017 Stewardship Report, p. 34.

Take a closer look at the third line from the bottom:

…we introduced a standard set of national content covering our history and program as well as consistent branding…

GSUSA, 2017 Stewardship Report, p. 34.

Is the intent here to provide national history in lieu of council history?

I’m not suggesting a great conspiracy here, perhaps it is just confusion. Perhaps councils did not get the memo saying that they could add their own history content?

If not, GSUSA should send it again. Councils should ask.

Listening to the Past
Brownie Try-It, 1989-2011

Girl Scouts has a rich history across the movement. History that is rich in breadth and depth.

It is time we stop erasing the board every time new leadership arrives.

Sorry folks, but history does not begin with you--but you surely can end it.

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Pants! We Want Pants!

What issue topped the agenda of the 1969 National Council session?

Pants. The membership spoke, and they wanted uniforms with pants.

Responding to waves of requests from girls, GSUSA announced that it would remain a uniformed movement and update girl uniforms. The most requested item? Pants. Active girls—not to mention their mothers—did not want to sacrifice movement for modesty. 

Official Uniform Catalog from 1963
Fashion Design, 1997-2011

Designing uniforms is a multifaceted process. The overall design needs to be visually unifying and reflect contemporary fashion without falling for passing fads that will shorten their appeal. The cut must flatter a wide range of body types, the fabric needs to be suitable for multiple climates, and the color palette needs to enhance skin tones ranging from very fair to very dark. Decorations and trims are kept to a minimum, both to keep costs down as well as to not compete with official insignia. 

Senior Uniform, 1960-1971

First up was the smallest age group—Senior Girl Scouts.  These high schoolers were still wearing the two-piece skirt suit introduced in 1960. Made out of a deep green sharkskin cotton fabric, the brightly colored uniform trim indicated the wearer’s area of concentration. Troops focused on International Friendship, for example, wore yellow ties and hat cords, Wing troops orange, and Homemaker troops turquoise. This iconic uniform, topped with an Overseas-style hat, was beloved by fans of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, but fell out of favor with the bell-bottom and suede fringe-wearing girls of the late 1960s. Girls had quickly nicknamed the suit the “Stewardess uniform,” but by now it was no longer a compliment. Besides, even the flight attendants had moved on to trendier styles. Seniors themselves had their own ideas about a uniform; they wanted pants—and mini-skirts, too.

After considering suggestions, designs, and even samples sent by girls, the National Equipment Service (NES) settled on two versions of a sleek step-in style A-line dress that buttoned up the front. For feedback, they took the uniform to the girls.

Manufacturers created samples in sizes 6 through 20 and shipped them to Rockwood National Camp and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah. Visiting Seniors of all shapes and sizes tried on the samples and completed feedback cards. They had a definite preference for one version and one shade of green, but indicated that they wanted heavier fabric, a belt, and pants. Designers made more revisions and presented the result to the National Executive Committee for final approval. NES was still not convinced of the need for pants, but they conceded defeat on the matter. 

Senior Uniform, 1971-1980

Ultimately, the girls were rewarded with pants in the same green cotton poplin fabric, but the semi-flared legs hardly qualified as bell-bottoms. The ensemble included a soft beret made of the same fabric, a tab tie, and a formidable green leather belt that was 1.5” wide with adjustment holes running the entire length.

But the most notable feature was the dress’s hemline—or, rather, the lack of one. After endless debates among focus groups and survey responses, GSUSA gave up trying to settle on the appropriate length. The dress was sold unhemmed, with a hang-tag reading: “The Official GS Uniform with the Unofficial Hemline.” If girls wanted mini-skirted uniforms, Headquarters seemed to say, let parents deal with the matter.  Many Senior Girl Scouts were accustomed to sewing their own clothes and turned the new dress into a short tunic to be worn over the new pants. Just how many ditched the pants once out their front door is unknown. 

And to really be mod, GSUSA created a line of hippy, crunchy-granola inspired casual pieces at the same time. Can’t you just imagine Marcia Brady or Laurie Partridge in these funky frocks?

GSUSA pieces for the fashion-forward Senior Girl Scout in 1971

Nope, me either. And if you look closely at the 1973 image showing the new uniforms, that spiffy green cape is marked “SALE,” although it doesn’t come through well in the picture. Guess these duds were a dud.

The other age levels received new uniforms in 1973. Instead of a single dress, Brownies, Juniors, and Cadettes each had their choice of five or six mix-and-match pieces, that included jumpers, pants, shorts, cotton blouses, and hideous polyester double-knit turtleneck bodysuits that were hot, itchy, had a stiff plastic zipper that grabbed your hair, and featured a snap crotch that perpetually pinched your privates. 

Catalog descriptions of the new clothing reflected the lingo of the time, emphasizing choice, individuality, and liberation:

1973 Catalog Copy Introducing New Uniforms

New space-age materials meant less wrinkling and less ironing.

The new styles included several pieces for each age level, creating another point of consistency.

Each level had a tie that snapped together. No more arguments about how to tie a neckerchief or which way the ends should point. The polyester, turtleneck bodysuit was high fashion at the time, not to mention indestructible and UNCOMFORTABLE. Can clothing cause PTSD? Because if so, these bodysuits would have.

The new Cadette uniform included the very first vest, instead of a badge sash. They were made from dark green felt, and some people mistakenly think they were homemade.

This week a new collection of uniform pieces debuted. So far, they are targeted toward the older age levels.

Hopefully GSUSA will never repeat the snap-zip-bodysuit debacle of the 1970s.

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Making New Friends, Again

Why is “Make New Friends” such a popular Girl Scout song?

Because staff come and go so quickly that we’re always dealing with someone new.

Four years ago, when Anna Maria Chavez resigned as GSUSA CEO, I wrote a blog post about “If I Were CEO.” I listed five steps that could be done to strengthen the Girl Scout movement. It was a popular post, and GSUSA used the framework for its own blog.

Now we are saying goodbye to CEO Sylvia Acevedo, and the points I made four years ago are still relevant.

One directly addressed the perpetual issue of staff turnover:

3. Invest in Staff Stability

Girl Scout councils have become pass-through workplaces. Few staff stay as long as two years, regarding the jobs as temporary stages in their careers. But younger doesn’t necessarily mean better in terms of employees; it simply means cheaper. How do we get them to put down roots? We could ask new hires to make a two-year commitment. We could also recruit from another demographic—current volunteers. Would empty-nesters, long-time volunteers whose troops have graduated, be interested? They are already  familiar with the program, so they would have less of a learning curve. We can’t build strong relationships and continuity with fleeting partner.

Another point asks you to consider your own communication style:

4. Promote a Culture of Collaboration

The various components of our movement must commit to improving communication, treating others with respect, and not going off to pout in our tents. This is OUR movement. It is up to us to find ways to perpetuate it.

APR23AR07

The old recipe for Brownie Stew applies in the conference room as well as the campsite: everyone brings something to the table—new ideas, hard-earned experience, and enthusiasm, to name a few. Just because an adult wasn’t a member as girl doesn’t mean they can’t contribute today.

We must eliminate the fear of being expelled or fired that intimidates leaders and staff into silence.

Staff must learn to value the contribution of volunteers—that means recognizing the hours they serve as well as the dollars they give. Both forms of contribution are equally vital to the future of our movement.

National, council, staff, volunteer, girl—we’re all part of the same big troop.

…But Keep the Old

Girl Scout careers seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Most of our early CEOs (or “National Directors”) spent a decade or more in one position. But now, programs are launched then fade away because the driving force has hit the road. Who is left to clean up the crumbs?

Past CEOs of GSUSA

The result of staff churn is an unfortunate feeling among volunteers that we can wait you out. Why listen to new procedures when we can be fairly sure that the presenter won’t be around for next year?

No wonder there are so many, many verses for “Make New Friends.”

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Summer Sunshine

Thanks to the Corona virus, days, weeks and even seasons have become a jumble. This time-warp effect, I think, is partly due to the lack of seasonal signposts.

This year there was no July 4th parade in my suburban town. Summer concerts are cancelled. Back-to-school shopping has been scaled back. And what about the Kentucky Derby? The family julep cups were polished, chilled, and ready to fill with minty goodness.

But what I find myself missing today is Camp Sunshine, a Girl Scout day camp about a 45-minute drive from our house. The last week of July is always Camp Sunshine week. My daughter Erin went every year from first grade through 12th, except for one year she was at NYU. I also worked there for four summers, including the one Erin missed.

The camp is held in a wooded area owned by a small, nearby church, but it is separated from the church buildings (and cemetery) by a field, usually planted with corn or soybeans. There was a small footbridge by the church, and protocol was that parents stayed on one side and watched their daughters cross the bridge, join other campers and head for the woods, walking on a gravel road. At afternoon pickup, we’d wait in the church parking lot and watch for our daughters to emerge from the corn.

The camp was pretty spartan. There’s a nice amphitheater, and porta-potties brought in for the occasion, but the units are concrete slabs with picnic tables and a large wooden storage box. Shelters are made by hoisting tarps and fastening the ropes around one of the many trees.

But once you got the campers and the staff together, the magic begins. Girls normally glued to their phones and screens discover that they can get by with much simpler gear. And, they learn that it is fun to be outside, that the occasional worm crawling about won’t bite them, and to always take a buddy. They also will learn songs. Morning songs, lunchtime songs, hiking songs, and at least one song intended to annoy adults for months on end. “Stay on the Sunny Side” always seemed to fill that last category. There always is a sober-minded staffer who explains to the girls that Princess Pat did not actually live in a tree.

And, for the record, Girl Scouts have been singing “Baby Shark” for decades.

“Butterfly” and Erin, 2006

In addition to making friends and having fun, Camp Sunshine was a treasured source of continuity for my daughter. Erin was in three different Brownie troops and three different elementary schools, but for the first four years at Camp Sunshine, she had the same leader (called “Butterfly”) and a large group of familiar faces in her unit.

That first year, she met a girl named Laura, and they quickly became friends. Unfortunately, they lived quite far apart. Year after year, the two girls would impatiently wait for Camp Sunshine so they could see each other again. As they became Cadettes, they were thrilled to find they were both going to the same magnet middle school and later the same magnet high school. Finally, the two wound up in the same troop, and they stayed together through high school. They attended college on opposite coasts, graduating in 2019. Both wound up in California for work, and despite being on opposite ends of the state, they have managed to visit back and forth. That is the power of a Girl Scout friendship.

Laura and Erin, 2009

When the camp switched from two weeks to one, I volunteered to lead the Cadette unit. I like working with that age group (middle school) because that’s the time we loose so many girls. They choose other, more time-consuming activities or decide that Girl Scouts isn’t cool. If we keep them through middle school, they can become Program Aides (junior counselors) in high school. At one point, my teen troop provided six Program Aides.

I tried to make the Cadette unit cool. We set up at the farthest edge of the camp, and skip some all-unit activities. The year all units had cute aquatic-themed names (Starfish, Mermaids, etc.), we were The Island–very foreboding and mysterious. I tried to create an atmosphere where the younger girls couldn’t wait to be a Cadette.

So we did cool stuff. I usually had around 15 girls. One year was forestry, origami, and paper-making. Another was Crime Scene Investigations, where the girls created crime scenes for the others to solve. We experimented with different recipes for fake, “movie” blood. That year I uttered one of the strangest sentences in my Girl Scout career:

“No, Susie, you can’t take your bag of severed limbs to the closing flag ceremony.”

The last two years were extra-fun. We did activities that turned into two of my Hunger Games patches. The girls did archery, made bread, and learned how to treat various injuries from the books. They made obstacle courses, makeshift tents, designed uniforms, and interviewed “tributes” competing in the games.

I really wanted to stay on at least another year, enough to finish the Hunger Games trilogy, but I reluctantly had to acknowledge that I could not continue.

About 20 years ago I had a catastrophic leg injury. Doctors saved the leg, but after several surgeries, I lost muscles, tendons and more. I now have a leg brace and cannot stand for long periods of time. I am especially prone to tripping, so the woods are hazardous.

The camp director was very generous about accommodations for me. I could drive out to the campsite, and I had program aides to help, but that still meant keeping the girls close to the unit, and me collapsing in a pool of pain each night.

Nevertheless, I am proud that I took on this challenge. It was really hard, but also fun. I loved working with a difficult age group and keeping them excited about staying Girl Scouts. I loved watching camping return as staff. I loved stopping at 7-11 for a Slurpee fix with a carload of Program Aides from my troop.

But the best part, of course, was working with Erin. Even when we were in different units, we did planning and packing, and setting up together.

Staff, 2011

I guess with all of life’s many changes, girls growing up and leaving for the next phase of their lives, it has been reassuring to know that, year after year, Camp Sunshine would always convene on the last week of July.

Camp Sunshine was cancelled this year, but I hope it will rise again in 2021. We could all use a dose of stability and continuity.

©2021 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian