Growing up as the youngest of four, my parents believed strongly in allowing each of us to pursue the interests that caught our eye. This meant that some of us joined sport teams, others pursed acting classes and another joined the church choir, with a bit of everything in between. These interests came and went as the years went on, and my parents allowed us the freedom to explore as we grew and changed. However, even in their belief of exploration, there was one specific program where their belief in the importance of it outweighed letting each child choose – I bet you can guess what it was! – Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. My parents prioritized the power of character development, consistency and service and they believed this was important for all of our school-age life and beyond. The gifts of courage, confidence and character are invaluable, and I am abundantly thankful to my family, and most of all, to Girl Scouts.
My troop started as a gaggle of 12 girls who were more interested in duck, duck goose than learning how to make a difference in the world. I laugh to myself as I think of the memories we made making up silly songs, playing pranks on our troop leader (yes, one involved marshmallows in her hair at camp) and the many adventures we chose for how we spent our cookie money. These foundational years developed our friendships, taught us how we could be loved tremendously by people other than our family and inspired us to try new things. One of my greatest hopes in life is that every person has a “cheerleader” – someone to believe in them, encourage them and love them unconditionally through both the seasons when they are easy to love and when it is more challenging. I was fortunate to have multiple cheerleaders both in my own family, and in my Girl Scout troop leaders and fellow Girl Scouts.
As they believed in me, I gained courage to try rock climbing, outdoor camping, tent pitching, canoeing, archery and more. Activities that seemed daunting were made fun and freeing because I had a safe place to explore them! Courage also developed as we earned different skill-building badges, asked community members to help with service projects and of course, pursued our business plans with the Girl Scout Cookie Program. The heart and courage formed throughout these years planted seeds in me to say “Yes!” to studying abroad in South Africa during college, working in a township school and moving to a new city when I knew only two people. Without the encouragement I received from my troop over the years in trying new things, I would not have had the same level of courage to walk into the unknown and pursue my dreams.
As I tried new experiences and activities, I gained a confidence to believe in myself. My troop leaders recognized that each girl in our troop had different strengths. They helped us grow in the areas we were naturally gifted but also pushed us to try more challenging areas, reminding us that it was okay to not be the best at everything. Knowing that it was okay to make a mistake or not be perfect at a specific skill-building badge or outdoor activity gave me the confidence to try those scary pursuits.
My mom always said I was born with a zest for life, and my siblings often said I was born talking too much! As a girl, my troop leaders did not shut down my joy for life, people, sharing and exploring – they fostered it and loved me in the ways that encouraged me to be me. Words will never fully articulate the role my leaders played in encouraging my confidence as I grew from age 5 to 25.
As my troop leaders poured into me, they also fostered relationships with all 11 other girls in my troop. And, my, did we grow and change over the years! By the time we were in middle school and high school there were different personalities with different interests and completely different schedules to accommodate. The important piece of this is that being in a troop taught me how to be a loyal friend even when people are different from me or even when they change and we don’t share the same interests anymore. As we got older, we went to different schools and pursued different activities. But one thing that stayed steady was the sisterhood of our Girl Scout troop. Loyalty, friendship, inclusion and the pursuit of justice were consistent in the expectations that we and our leaders set for our troop.
Even now, this has not wavered. When one of my Girl Scout sister’s mom died, we were there. When one of our troop leaders was in a coma, we were there. When five of them got married, we were there (and many of us stood by their side as bridesmaids). When many of us made poor decisions, we were there. When someone got a dream job, we were there. We may not all live in the same city anymore – nor do we have monthly meetings – but we do not miss our annual Christmas dinner, and we continue to pursue friendship from afar.
This character was built through friendship, but it was also built from our troop’s commitment to service. As Cadettes and Seniors, we earned the Silver and Gold Awards and learned the importance of giving back to our community. We learned how to see a need in the community, pursue a passion, make a plan, develop a budget, ask for help and take action.
In this world, there is enough talk about what should be done or the challenging parts of living in today’s society. Girl Scouts taught me the importance of taking action and pursuing real change, even if it appears small in the moment.
Girl Scouts has given back to me tenfold as I recall the friendships made, lifelong mentorship through my troop leaders, scholarships I received for college, courage to study abroad in South Africa, passion for social justice and serving my community and now as I am serving as Director of Urban Membership for Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee.
It is my hope and dream for every girl to experience the beauty of a Girl Scout campfire, the joy in singing the Brownie Smile Song, the accepting feeling of a friendship circle and a stirring in their heart for wanting to make a difference in the world.
This Thanksgiving, I hope that we can recall the ways Girl Scouts has grown us, our girls and our community.
Mary-Claire Spencer serves as Director of Urban Membership for Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee. She enjoys supporting the staff who oversee membership for Davidson, Rutherford and Williamson counties. In addition to specific urban counties, she supports GSMIDTN staff who oversee the L.E.A.D. outreach program, Troop 6000 homeless outreach initiative, Hispanic outreach and Faith-based Initiatives.