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Western NC Girl Scouts builds on past

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[Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on Girl Scouting in western North Carolina.]

Elizabeth Floyd

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Though the Girl Scouts are searching for a new message and a more diverse membership, they’re still promoting the same values.

“Living a life that is meaningful, compassionate, caring, honest,” says Molly Keeney, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Western North Carolina Pisgah Council, when asked to describe the present-day ethics of the 95 year-old national youth organization.

Based in Asheville and serving 15 Western North Carolina counties, the council is getting a makeover — from a new headquarters to new uniforms.

It’s part of a revamped business strategy the national organization, Girl Scouts U.S.A., adopted in 2004 to address declining membership and a diminished brand image.

Pisgah will merge with four other councils in April, but Keeney expects the bread and butter of earning badges and selling cookies will remain the same.

A former Girl Scout herself, as are her two daughters, Keeney says diversity has always been a defining characteristic of the institution.

“The Girl Scouts is historically one of the first organizations that desegregated, one of the first that had non-segregated camps,” she says, citing Martin Luther King’s 1956 praise of the Girl Scouts as a “force for desegregation.”

But with membership dwindling, many regions are redoubling efforts to recruit ethnic minorities.

While making the Scouts more diverse still is a challenge in areas like western North Carolina, where the minority population is relatively small, Keeney says, the council has been largely successful in efforts to recruit more Hispanic and African-American girls.

In 2006, Hispanic membership increased 43 percent and African-American registration spiked 85 percent, compared to overall membership growth of 22 percent since 2005.

Asheville’s African-American mayor, Terry Bellamy, has provided strong support for the council’s efforts to diversify, Keeney says.

Several years ago, Asheville-area field executive Patsy Rodriguez was experiencing some success with a troop of primarily African-American girls at the city’s Hall Fletcher Elementary School.

On a whim she contacted Bellamy, and “before you know it, Mayor Bellamy and six of her friends were going to run the troop,” she says.

Thanks to Bellamy’s business and government contacts, and to positive responses from several black churches, the council now has enough volunteers for three majority African-American troops.

Hispanic recruiting also has picked up in recent years.

Several older Girl Scouts in Haywood and Henderson counties founded two mostly Hispanic troops for younger girls at their churches, Keeney says, both of which continued to grow even after the older members left for college.

But the council has had less luck with Native Americans, who in some Pisgah counties account for as much as a quarter of the population.

In her five years as a field executive, Linda Mitchell says she has started three troops at the Cherokee reservation, but none lasted longer than a year.

And while just outside the reservation in Whittier she has a thriving troop that is 90 percent Native American, Mitchell has had trouble retaining reliable troop leaders on the reservation itself, despite the support of community leaders.

Keeney says strong leaders from within communities are usually more successful than outsiders, but also more difficult to find.

“Just like in many other low-income housing areas, oftentimes people who live there don’t have the confidence to think that they can be a leader,” she says. “Those who do already have a million demands on their time.”

Western Carolina University will host the national meeting of the American Indian Scouting Association in October and those attending will visit the reservation, an event Mitchell hopes will attract girls of all ethnic backgrounds.

“Girl Scouts is a good place for girls who don’t do what everybody else does,” she says.

Part I: Western Girl Scouts make new friends, keep old

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