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Girl Scouts thwarted by lack of leaders

By JULIANNE WU

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


LARGO -- For nearly 90 years, Girl Scouts has provided young girls female role models who taught values, teamwork, leadership -- and, of course, how to have fun.

But a lack of adult volunteer leaders has led to overcrowded troops and, for some aspiring scouts in the Tampa Bay area, a wait as long as two years before a spot opens up. Such obstacles have prevented an uncounted number of girls from joining.

Karen Moehl of Seminole has experienced the effects firsthand.

Her daughter, Layna, 7, wanted to be a Brownie, but the troop was full.

"They stretched their troop to take in one more," Moehl said.

Her older daughter, Elise, now 10, wasn't so lucky.

When Moehl couldn't get Elise into a troop through Fuguitt Elementary School in Largo, she approached her church.

"I was told I would have to become a leader if I wanted her in Girl Scouts," Moehl said. At the time, she was having health problems and declined.

Finally, after two years on a waiting list, Elise, now a fifth-grader at Fuguitt, lost interest.

"The search for leaders is a constant problem," said Jody Johnston, executive director of the Tampa-based Suncoast Girl Scout Council. Johnston directs a four-county area: Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando.

Although 6,000 girls in Pinellas County -- and 17,000 in the four-county area -- are Girl Scouts, many others miss out because not enough volunteers are serving to accept them, officials said.

Sue Kelly, director of 38 Girl Scout troops in North Pinellas, is as saddened as anyone about the situation.

"Last year, we had over 200 girls on our waiting list," said Kelly of Tarpon Springs. "What happens in the meantime is the girls often get tired of waiting and switch to sports or music or dance lessons."

Terri Costello, who handles membership marketing for the Suncoast Council, estimates at least another 100 leaders are needed across the region for the next school season.

"In Pinellas County alone, we are expecting a growth rate of about 12 percent over the next three years" in membership, she said.

Kelly hopes to attract enough leaders to start three more troops this fall. She said many of the people who serve on her board are also troop leaders.

That's true in the Largo and Seminole areas, too, said Sally Traino, director of troops there. "All 12 of my service people wear several hats, and they all have troops," she said.

Although her area had no waiting lists last year, she is afraid there may be this fall. And the strain on leaders whose troops are growing worries her.

According to the Suncoast Council's Web site, troop sizes should be something like this: Daisies, 5 to 15 girls ages 5-6; Brownies, 15 to 25 girls ages 6-8; Juniors, 15 to 30 girls ages 8-11; and Cadettes (ages 11-14) and Seniors (ages 14-17) between 10 and 30 girls.

But Brownie Troop 248, which meets at the Southwest Recreation Complex in Largo, has 32 girls. Some area troops have more.

"I load up my troops because I have to," Traino said. "I am pretty sure we will have a waiting list this fall unless we get a few more leaders."

Of the 7,600 volunteers and 50 paid staff members in the Suncoast Council, about 2,500 are leaders, said Johnston, who became executive director in January. The council is divided into 45 "neighborhoods" and it serves more than 17,000 scouts in 1,251 troops.

Girl Scouts are continuing a long tradition in the Tampa Bay area -- one that started in 1913, when the nation's second troop was formed at the Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa. That was a year after Juliette Gordon Low founded the first Girl Scout troop in March 1912 in Savannah, Ga.

Despite the history, scout leaders say the organization has a lot to offer today's youth.

"There are still many benefits to being in a single-sex organization," Johnston said.

Joan Parker, a troop co-leader who was a Girl Scout herself, agreed. "There are a million reasons why it should still be only for girls," she said. "They feel like they can just "let it all out.' Girls act differently when they are around the opposite sex. Boys, for that matter, too."

Pat Champion of Lakeland, a former leader and a Girl Scout day camp director for the past 22 years for the Suncoast Council, added: "Everybody should have their own little clubs -- boys and girls alike. I think our country is pushing too much togetherness."

So why is there such a shortage of women leaders?

"So many mothers are working today and there is so much pressure on them," Johnston said.

Traino, Beth Tolbert and Kelly hear that excuse -- and take issue with it.

Traino, 46, who cares for four youngsters full time, said: "When a parent tells me they don't have time because they work, I'd like to say, "So? Most of us work full time. Welcome to the club!' "

Tolbert, 34, who has three daughters: Mallory, 14, Megan, 8, and Michaela, 3, agreed. "I am a full-time child care provider. I'm busy, too," she said. "But I had to do it because there weren't any other leaders. My youngest one is already talking about becoming a Girl Scout," she said.

Traino thinks one reason for the shortage of leaders is because many mothers "fly up" with their daughters' troops as they grow older.

"Granted, there is a time commitment," said Kelly, 42, who is a first-grade teacher at Brooker Creek Elementary School in Tarpon Springs. "But I do it for Melissa, my 8-year-old daughter. I want to give her the same kind of memories I had as a Girl Scout."

Parker offered another reason why women don't want to get involved.

"Sometimes, women are intimidated," she said. "They don't think they have a creative bone in their body.

"For a long time, I couldn't get up in front of a crowd. Now, I don't flinch. Being a Girl Scout leader has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."

- Information from Times files and the Suncoast Girl Scouts Web site was used in this report.

Leaders wanted

The Suncoast Girl Scout Council is looking for women to volunteer as Girl Scout leaders and co-leaders. The organization also welcomes male volunteers for other positions. For information, call (800) 881-4475 or (813) 281-4475.

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