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    To keep a pledge, Scouts pay leaders

    A group that prizes volunteerism is taking a different approach in an effort to fulfill its mission.

    By RYAN DAVIS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001


    LACOOCHEE -- Brittany Carr's self-esteem is as fragile as the economic support around her -- except on Tuesday afternoons.

    "I've got so many friends," the 11-year-old said. "I'm so popular here at Girl Scouts."

    Brittany is the kind of girl the Scouts want to reach, but many of the mothers in this rural northeast Pasco community are like her mom: single, and working two jobs to pay for the T-shirts and jean shorts her daughter wears to school.

    The Girl Scouts have a solution to finding Scout leaders in places like this, though it's one that flies in the face of the 89-year-old group's emphasis on volunteerism: They pay Brittany's group leader.

    More than one in six Tampa Bay area Girl Scouts are now led by paid leaders, officials said. The local Girl Scout council started paying troop leaders five years ago in poorer neighborhoods in Hillsborough County. It was supposed to be a bridge to recruiting volunteer leaders.

    It hasn't worked.

    Instead, the oxymoron "paid volunteers" has spread into Pasco and Pinellas counties. Next up: Hernando.

    This is what happens when the Scouts' new slogan "Every girl, everywhere" meets under-served, low-income areas -- both urban and rural. It has left the Girl Scouts to weigh volunteerism against its mission to make one in every seven girls a Scout.

    "We are a volunteer-driven organization," said Jody Johnston, the executive director of the Suncoast Girl Scout Council, which serves Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. "The heart and blood of Girl Scouts relies on our volunteers, but for a variety of reasons there are not enough volunteers to serve all the girls that we really need to reach."

    * * *

    Siobhan Giunta often gets strange looks when she tells people she gets paid to lead Girl Scouts.

    "I'll give up my site tomorrow if you have someone who's willing to come in and volunteer," the Zephyrhills leader said she tells the doubters. "The bottom line to me: It's not the child's fault if the parents don't have the time to be a volunteer leader."

    Giunta is one of 13 paid leaders serving 131 groups of Scouts in the region, said Cynthia Williams, the Suncoast Council's director of outreach services.

    Because only seven such groups have been turned over to volunteer leaders since the program's inception, the number of paid leaders continues to swell, Williams said.

    The Suncoast Council has budgeted for 20 paid leaders by October, Johnston said.

    Of the nearly 18,000 Tampa Bay area girls who were Scouts last year, more than 3,000 were served by paid leaders, Williams said. Paid leaders head 62 groups in Hillsborough, 46 in Pinellas and 23 in Pasco. Some of the groups meet only in summer.

    Much like the girls they serve, the leaders come from different backgrounds.

    Giunta, 39, a mother who works part time for an accountant, faced giving up being a Girl Scout leader when her daughters neared high school. She took on five groups in Zephyrhills instead.

    Samiat Antigua, 41, a school guidance counselor, is going to use paychecks from leading a Tampa group as spending money for her family on its trip to London this summer. She leads two groups at a mental health facility for juvenile offenders.

    Avis O'Kane, 34, Brittany Carr's leader, works at a social service agency. O'Kane said she needs the money to make ends meet. She leads two groups in east Pasco.

    Each of the leaders has grown attached to the girls they serve.

    The paid leaders are not always warmly received, especially by their volunteer counterparts, Giunta said. But the job they do is different.

    Most oversee more than one group, a troop with girls from 5 to 17 years old, Williams said.

    They must meet the standard Girl Scout leader qualification -- being a woman older than 18 -- and they must go through the same training as a volunteer leader.

    They are called program specialists and they can work up to 19 hours a week, Williams said. They start at $10 an hour and are paid for mileage, but they do not receive benefits.

    "The key thing is that the girl can say in 20 years that she had a Girl Scout leader. She's not going to know she was in an outreach group."

    * * *

    Without their paid leaders, the local girls would never become Scouts, never sell a Thin Mint.

    As it is, more than 1,000 girls, mostly in Hillsborough, remain on the Girl Scout waiting list in the Tampa Bay area, spokesman Shawn Yeva said.

    Said Johnston: "We can go into a community where mom was a Girl Scout, grandma was a Girl Scout, sisters were Girl Scouts, aunts were Girl Scouts; it's a family thing. Now we're going -- particularly if we go into the Hispanic community, the African-American community, the Asian community -- where they did not have a family history."

    The Girl Scouts national headquarters in New York doesn't keep track of which councils pay leaders, spokeswoman Alexus Ranniar said. "It happens when there's a special need," she said.

    The Suncoast Council tries to drum up interest in areas it is not serving, often in collaboration with groups such as Boys & Girls Clubs, recreation centers and churches.

    The Scouts try to find a volunteer leader, Williams said, but if they can't, they bring in a program specialist, in hopes of making the group permanent.

    "We're not going to be like everyone else and come in and leave," Williams said.

    The girls get the same experience as their counterparts with volunteer leaders -- almost, Johnston said. Johnston and paid leaders said it's harder for them to make long-term plans and schedule special outings because they juggle multiple groups and have to get approval to work extra hours. But the girls get the same weekly meetings of crafts combined with Scout history, and most of them still get the trademarks: camping and cookies.

    "We like to say that we're a tradition with a future because we have been able to change," Johnston said.

    That future is teaching girls such as Brittany to be "honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong. . . ."

    Brittany lives with her mother and her mother's boyfriend in a mobile home. Her mother usually works six days a week in a hospital kitchen and two nights a week in the fabric department at Wal-Mart.

    Every Tuesday, the fifth-grader with the fragile self-esteem goes to the place where she's popular.

    Every Tuesday morning, her mother said, she searches for her shirt that says Girl Scouts on it. She pins her Brownie badge to the fold in her jean shorts and her Girl Scout badge just below the neck of her shirt. Brittany looks forward to seeing her leader, O'Kane.

    "She's cool, funny," Brittany said, "just like a real mom."

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