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Grownup Girl Scout

Scouting taught Alma Powell how to be strong. And the wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell takes every opportunity to talk about how that lesson has helped her in life.

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2003

TAMPA -- Alma Powell, community servant, children's author, lifelong Girl Scout and wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell, is kind, comforting and easy to talk to, even with Secret Service agents hovering nearby.

“Have hope and faith in the future,” Alma Powell said. 

Some Tampa Bay area Girl Scouts learned that when Mrs. Powell spoke last week to the Girl Scouts of Suncoast Council's 2003 Women of Distinction Recognition Luncheon.

As she finished lunch after her address to the more than 600 guests at the A La Carte Pavilion, Mrs. Powell smiled and talked with a red-haired Brownie who had navigated through the crowd pressing near the table. The girl's mom took a few pictures.

"I met her," said enthusiastic Cadette Scout Tara Duffy, 13, wearing the khaki and baby blue Cadette uniform. "She was really cool. She was nice."

Another Cadette, Michelle Cimo, 12, agreed. "It was a real honor to be here for this and meet her."

It is hard not to like Mrs. Powell. In a gentle yet commanding voice, she treated the audience of women, Girl Scouts and a handful of men to colorful tales of her travels around the world with her husband and their children.

In Turkey, for example, she saw beautiful handwoven ceremonial socks. Men would give them to their intended brides, she said, with tradition dictating that the color and pattern designated the man's personality and the lifestyle they would have together. A plain weave and a muted color, for example, might mean that you would have a quiet, uneventful life.

Then Mrs. Powell held up the Turkish sock her husband had given her as a souvenir: brightly colored with a busy design. The audience laughed as she explained the message: "Stick with me, kid; I'll show you a good time." The sock has turned out to represent all aspects of their lives, she said, pointing to a dark spot on the heel that could symbolize the world's "difficulties of today."

Mrs. Powell is not just the woman behind the man who is in the news often these days. She serves on the board of several civic, cultural, charitable and educational organizations, and is the vice chairwoman of the board of America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth, a nonprofit group her husband founded in 1997. It works to improve children's lives throughout the United States. Also vice chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she believes the arts are a vital part of children's education.

Her children's books are to be published in the spring. One of them, America's Promise, presents through animal characters the things adults should give children, including a safe place to grow up and an "opportunity to give back." The other, a board book for toddlers, is called My Little Red Wagon, named after the symbol of America's Promise.

"Every child should have a wagon to put his treasures in," one with a long handle that allows an adult to pull it when the load gets too heavy, she said at the end of her speech. She patted the wagon pin fastened to her red suit.

Last year she was recognized by the Girl Scouts of the USA as a National Woman of Distinction, an appropriate honor for someone who was influenced by Girl Scouts before she was old enough to be one. As a baby, Mrs. Powell went to troop meetings with her mother, Mildred Bell Johnson, who founded the first troop for African-American girls in Alabama. "When the Girl Scouts ask me to do something, I always say yes," she said, smiling.

Girl Scouting is an example of opportunities that help girls be strong, which is key to surviving painful times. Recalling the "caper charts" of scout camp ("we cleaned latrines!") and swimming lessons in a creek taught by an imposing instructor "in a black wool bathing suit, who pointed her finger at you and commanded, 'FLOAT,' " Mrs. Powell said that she learned how to be prepared.

"Sometimes I think, if worse comes to worst, I'm ready for survival training," she said.

Mrs. Powell's message for kids is simple and encouraging. She talked about a "brave and bright new future," despite the frightening things happening in the world.

"Have hope and faith in the future," she said in an interview after the speech. "Rely on the adults in your life; don't discount their lessons.

"Have self-discipline. Know what you can do and what you can't," she said, her distinctive green eyes illuminating her face, connecting with the listener.

She said that confidence is hard to have when things are uncertain. "We are living in a whirlwind of change," she said in her speech. "The process of change is painful but exciting. We have a part in the making of a brave new world."

Mrs. Powell urges kids to give back to their community any way they can. That message also is present in her books.

"Sometimes it's as simple as going next door and seeing if the neighbor needs help," she said. "Kids can clean up vacant lots and make their communities look better. They can visit the elderly in nursing homes, or young children at a preschool. Everyone can do something."

The luncheon honored Tampa Bay area women who continue to "do something" to help young people and improve communities here and beyond: Frances Stavros, Holly Duncan, Lee Bird Leavengood and P. Buckley Moss.

-- Jessica DaFonte, 15, is in ninth grade at Palm Harbor University High School and has been a Girl Scout for 10 years.

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