On today’s 51%, we learn how some high school girl scouts have been helping their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ll learn how the Girl Scouts are trying to diversify.
When you think of the Girl Scouts, what comes to mind? For me, it’s cookies. Samoas, specifically. It’s cute little hats and sashes with badges and if I’m being honest, those little plastic boondoggle crafts that I could never get to look good enough to give as a keychain gift on Christmas.
Whatever I thought I’d find in this banquet hall, it certainly wasn’t these composed, serious-looking high school girls who are changing the world.
At the Girl Scouts Gold Award ceremony at Glen Sanders Mansion outside Schenectady, about 30 young
women in sun dresses and sashes, joined by their parents, sit in a socially distanced banquet hall
with the walls backlit Girl Scout green.
17-year-old Madison Mackey joins me after all the awardees are announced. Mackey attends the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, New York. She joined the Daises in kindergarten and is now a Cadet Senior Girl Scout.
“I think that girl scouts has really taught me leadership and just being able to be empowering to other women that are less fortunate in the community,” Mackey said.
Mackey just received “the Gold Award” – the highest award in the Girl Scouts – for her work during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.
“For my project I created an annual day at Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, New York, which allows girls to create reusable and washable menstrual kits in partnership with the Moon Catcher Project, who is a local nonprofit organization in Schenectady, New York, who makes reusable and washable menstrual kits for girls in third world countries, from Malawi to Zimbabwe, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, all across Africa, some countries in the Caribbean, and a lot of underserved countries and communities,” Mackey said.
Mackey says she got the idea at a church event a few years ago, when they hosted the Moon Catcher Project, and locals participated in making the feminine hygiene kits.
“And I absolutely fell in love with the project once I was able to fully comprehend what it meant to be able to menstruate and really be able to relate to other girls that are not being able to go to school and missing up to 50 days of school a year because they are menstruating,” Mackey said. “And in these countries, the girls are considered ‘dirty’ or ‘soiled.’ And they have no access to menstrual products. So therefore they’re using plastic bags, mud, leaves, or they’re not going to school because they’re menstruating. And in their society, men are looking at them as objects. And because in these countries, the poverty is so bad, the girls are often getting married off because their families aren’t able to afford to care for them anymore. Because often these families are making 123 dollars a week. So they’re not able to care for their children, and they’re not being able to supply them with menstrual supplies. So they’re getting married off and they’re often getting pregnant at 13 years old.”
Mackey says the project helped her to navigate the pandemic, while the Girl Scouts were scaled back and largely virtual.
“I think that being able to work on my gold Service Award and really just kind of navigate through a pandemic,” Mackey said. “I was just really happy that I was able to kind of reinvent my project and what I was doing and being able to do tons of more virtual opportunities and virtual educational sessions to make people more aware of such an important global issue that impacts women, and especially as girls — like we can all relate to this issue. So I think that it was really important that I was still in Girl Scouts and I was still working on this award and just being able to have resilience to be able to navigate through a pandemic.”
Looking around the room at the Gold Awards, Mackey is the only Girl Scout of color. She also serves on the Board of Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York as the “Girl Member at Large.” She says she would like to see the Girl Scouts diversify, and reach out to underserved communities.
“Being an African American, I’m very fortunate to be able to live in a suburban town where there is a Girl Scout troop,” Mackey said. “But often in the city of Albany, there aren’t many Girl Scout troops and girls that live in like urban areas or in the city don’t really have access to a Girl Scout troop, because of just kind of geographical areas and also, like other African American troop leaders that would want to start a troop. But I think that it’s extremely important. And I think that that’s definitely one area where Girl Scouts can improve is just the outreach to the inner city, and being able to improve diversity within troops and within Girl Scouts itself.”
Mackey says Girl Scouts is more affordable than people might assume. She says the membership is $25 a year. She says there are scholarships and fundraisers for girls who can’t afford it. And she says it’s worth the time you put in.
“You have great exposure with the badges that you’re able to do,” Mackey said. “The community service work, giving back, just being able to be so involved I think is so important, and especially underserved kids that don’t usually have access, I think that it’s so important to be able to learn these skills and just be a part of a community and a sisterhood.”
Mackey is in troop number 1003. She is a junior in high school and says she plans to go to business school after she graduates.
“Right now I’m just in the college process of doing college visits and figuring out where’s the right fit for me,” Mackey said.
Mackey says people assume Girl Scouts is just for young girls.
“But as you grow older, I think that you learn more about other communities, about local and global issues, and ways that you can really reach back into the community,” Mackey said. “And I think that as you grow older in Girl Scouts, you’re really able to do a lot more and you have more opportunity and access to different opportunities that you can do. And just tons of experiences like sailing, going to Nassau, going to Washington, D.C., there’s tons of trips and opportunities that you’re able to do with Girl Scouts.”
In 2018, the Boy Scouts started accepting girls as Cub Scouts and in 2019 older girls were accepted into Eagle Scout programs. Mackey says she never even considered switching over.
“I actually never really thought of Boy Scouts at all,” Mackey said. “I thought that girl scouts was awesome. Like we were our own organization. We were doing awesome things. Everyone knew us for cookies. And I never really compared the two I honestly never even really looked into Boy Scouts because I love Girl Scouts so much and I’ve been so involved that boy scouts never really crossed my mind at all.”
Mackey says the pandemic has been challenging for young people, but she wants young women to keep their goals in sight. She says she lost her father during COVID-19, and helping others is what pulled her through her grief.
“My father passed away February 1, after a long battle of heart disease and heart failure,” Mackey said. “And after he passed away, I was feeling so down and I actually started a Facebook fundraiser for the Moon Catcher Project and for the month of March in support of women’s month. I raised over $3,000 for the Moon Catcher Project, which was amazing because in the midst of a pandemic, it was very hard to ship the materials to all of the different regions and countries within Africa because of the shipping delays with COVID. So the fundraiser really helped with progressing the project, and also being able to get the materials over and also making the kits as well. And my family then founded the Warren and Denise Mackey Foundation, which is in memory of my father that gives back to the local community, the Albany community, where we are giving back to underserved youth and elements of sports.”
Mackey says Girl Scouts has helped her to look outward.
“I think that it’s really important that even when you struggle with things in yourself, and just processing everything, being able to really give back and support other people,” Mackey said. “It’s just something that my father really emulated, with giving back to the Albany community and being such like a monumental figure here. And I just really wanted to be able to continue his legacy, especially with our families Foundation, with being able to give back.”
18-year-old Brigid Mack has been in the Girl Scouts for 11 years. She won her Gold Award for creating
sensory toys for children with special needs during the pandemic. She started by contacting the Wynantskill Community Special Education Parent-Teacher Association.
“To reach out to kids specifically with disabilities, and families who were in need of sensory toys, and sensory items that can maybe help in situations such as the COVID pandemic,” Mack said.
About 90 of these sensory bags have been distributed to families across the region with laminated story booklets explaining COVID regulations, like mask wearing and washing hands. Mack says children with disabilities struggled the most during the pandemic. She says she saw it first hand with her brother.
“He does have autism, and you know, kind of traveling with him and going about, you know, it comes with challenges, as it always does,” Mack said. “But with mask wearing, social distancing, they’re not always concepts that they’re used to, really anyone with disability and anyone in general, their routine is kind of stunted. Their usual day-to-day practices, they have to be changed, they have to be reconstructed. So that’s what the social stories help with is kind of reconstructing the ritual, the routine that they’re used to in the day. And it probably comes with a lot of stressors as well to have to change like that. And so those, the sensory toys are meant to help with that stress to kind of handle it in a more healthy way.”
Mack says a sensory toy can be anything from squishy sand to tiny lava-lamp bubbler toys you can endlessly flip to watch the colors change. Mack says many families accessed these toys in school, but the pandemic disrupted that access.
“I mean, we weren’t in school for like forever,” Mack said. “And then you’re not also not able to have access to those sensory toys like you were able to. Because you know, terms, you can’t you not all children can share those toys. So now, when I distributed those bags, to the children in the community, they were able to have their own set, they were able to take them wherever they wanted to, to have them ready available to them.”
Mack says the project provided an outlet when she was struggling with mental health issues, particularly in the winter, during pandemic lockdowns.
“I was kind of struggling to like, just keep up, keep focused and anything,” Mack said. “I myself have anxiety and OCD. And I was handling that very well up until the pandemic and once it started, I was definitely feeling not very myself, I was stuck home all the time — I did go to school. But as a hybrid schedule I was… I felt not myself, I guess. And I’m still struggling with that as well. And so but this project, even though it was a struggle to get through, it still was very much worth it like the hard work, it really meant something to me. And when it came to the process, making the sensory story, the social stories, that took a lot of a lot of time to laminate and then put the bags together. It was like task work, but it was good task work.”
She says the culmination of the project was when she distributed the sensory bags to families, in a park, socially distanced.
“It was like the first time I actually got to see the kids that I was doing this for,” Mack said. “This was in, I think it was the first weekend in November. And I got to see the kids, and I felt so lucky to meet them. And I got to see them use the bags and like enjoy all the stuff. And I got to notice like which ones they liked best. Like, I guess a favorite was like, I had these like rocks, these like smooth rocks in there, they’re kind of cool to the touch. A lot of the kids liked that. They were also squish balls, I use those, there was cloud dough, which is kind of like, it’s like a mix of playdough and kinetic sand. It’s really fun, I love it. And then also had like, these, like lava globes that this was actually a DIY project that I did that took up a lot of time as well to figure out and basically you can kind of swish it around and there was like little glitter and it’s made of like baby oil and water with food coloring in it was very fun to make and it’s very fun to watch and play with. So the kids really liked that too.”
Mack says that day in the park pulled some emotions out of her that had been festering during the pandemic.
“Me, my brother, and my mom, we went to McDonald’s after and I was crying at the drive thru and I’m like, ‘Mom, I miss people I miss — I miss seeing children.’ Like, I’m very used to being around children and I was like, ‘I missed this. I miss human connection,’” Mack said.
Mack attends Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York. After that? SUNY Purchase, majoring in vocal performance in opera. She says later in her career she will likely focus on music therapy for those with special needs.
Board Chair Kristen Navarette
Dr. Kristen Navarette is Board Chair of Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York.
“So we serve over 10,000 girls across a very large area that ranges all the way up to the Canadian border down into the Hudson Valley area, and over 5,000 adults and volunteers,” Navarette said.
Navarette says she is responsible for the “strategic vision,” of the Girl Scouts, making sure that they are providing a modern leadership program for the girls with opportunities that build girls “of confidence character” – who will make the world a better place. She says it’s a steep goal during a pandemic, especially for an organization that thrives on in-person education.
“We did a lot of virtual programming,” Navarette said. “Our camps this year, this past year, were virtual, a lot of troops moved to a virtual platform. And so we provided support to leaders so that they could be equipped to be able to do that. And so we saw them do incredible things, with new and innovative ways they were able to bring in guest speakers into troop meetings that maybe they hadn’t in the past, because sometimes it’s difficult to get someone physically in person. And they continue to do really cool things like coding, pottery, making jewelry for the younger ones. For the older ones, they certainly learned a lot about leadership skills. I know many of these girls are able to earn these highest awards using lots of various virtual platforms to meet with people and find out about the various needs for their project.”
Navarette says the Gold Awards represent the completion of a leadership journey for the girls.
“They go on this journey to identify needs in their community, build a team, put that together, to then accomplish their goals to addressing the issue that they see,” Navarette said. “So, for Girl Scouts, it really is the highest award. And it’s quite challenging. One of the important components of the Gold Award Girl Scout achievement is to ensure sustainability. So whatever they put into place, whatever solution they find, to find a way to make sure that once they move on to the next thing in life, that that solution persists. So that that problem doesn’t continue, even after they’ve moved on.”
Navarette says the girls rose to the occasion this year in a way she never could have imagined.
“The Gold Award is an incredibly difficult achievement to accomplish at a normal year,” Navarette said.
“And so to be presented with all the various challenges that they were this year, and they had to be incredibly flexible and resilient — having to shift, whether it was the original solution couldn’t be done in this new world of COVID because of various COVID restrictions, even just trying to meet with people to learn about the various needs and get their goals accomplished. All had to be done in new and innovative virtual ways. And so it’s a real testament to their incredible leadership skills and the value that they’re bringing to the world as leaders.”
From its founding in 1912, the Girl Scouts declared itself open to all girls.
Still during segregation, the first troop for Black girls was formed in 1917.
In 1956, after an interracial Girl Scouts troop formed in Kentucky, Martin Luther King Jr. called the Girl Scouts “a force for desegregation.”
Nineteen years later, the first African American Girl Scouts of USA President, Dr. Gloria Scott, was elected. And Girl Scouts partners with historically Black colleges and universities, companies, and organizations to make the organization more accessible to the Black community.
In 2020, Judith Batty made history as the first Black woman to lead the Girl Scouts USA.
Navarette says diversifying the Girl Scouts is still a priority.
“Our mission is to serve all girls,” Navarette said. “And so we really have been undertaking initiatives to look at how we are serving girls to make sure that we are including everyone. We do have a diversity, equity and inclusion Task Force who are making recommendations about how we can make sure that we are able to reach out to all communities and make sure that all communities feel welcomed at Girl Scouts. We’re also looking at our programming to make sure that it meets families where they are. We recognize that families come from all different backgrounds. And so we want to make sure that our model is flexible enough that all families can find a way to feel welcomed and included in Girl Scouts. And we also have an after school program that we are working to reinstitute again — during the pandemic It was difficult with all the challenges in schools. And so we’re very excited and looking forward to bring back that after school program in the inner city area as that is probably a great way to help serve a lot of our families.”
Navarette says she isn’t bothered by Girl Scouts wanting to become Eagle Scouts.
“We are the preeminent leadership organization for girls,” Navarette said. “And so we really want to make sure that we’re delivering a high quality program that girls want to be a part of, we really are the girl experts. And so we want to make sure that girls see us that way, and therefore want to be a part of our organization. We certainly welcome girls to explore all the opportunities that are out there, though.”
Navarette says there’s nothing the Boy Scouts offer that the Girl Scouts are lacking.
“And I can say that having been a Girl Scout, as a Girl Scout leader, and now even as board chair, you know, we provide everything from the STEM activities, to the more traditional outdoor experience, that’s actually one of my favorite parts of Girl Scouts, we just took our girls to do an outdoor day where they learned survival skills, and went canoeing, and boating and had all kinds of fun out at our camp,” Navarette said. “So we really provide very broad programming, and it’s very girl led, which I think is one of the challenges sometimes is that, you know, not all girls have the same interest sometimes. And so, you know, it’s a pick your own adventure at times. And so we want to make sure that girls know that in Girl Scouts, they get to choose what they want to do.”
Navarette says the Girl Scouts is LGBTQ friendly.
“Anyone who identifies as a girl is absolutely welcomed in Girl Scouting,” Navarette said. “We are the preeminent leaders of organizations for girls. And so anyone who identifies as a girl is absolutely welcome to be part of our sisterhood.”
Navarette says the most common misconception about the Girl Scouts is that it’s just a bunch of girls doing arts and crafts on the weekend.
“And I think that’s one of the challenges is — to try to break that myth,” Navarette said. “And again, put the emphasis on the fact that we really offer a very diverse set of opportunities, you can really do anything that your heart wants to do or that your imagination can lead you to want to do those opportunities that are available in Girl Scouts. So whether you want to become a rocket scientist and learn about space, or you want to become a coder, if you want to go and be a great artist, if you want to go and be an outdoor wilderness survival experts, you can get all of those foundations and Girl Scouts.”
Navarette says COVID has hit some people hard, and she understands if families can’t pay for any “extra” activities right now. She says membership is $25 and other small activity fees can add up to about $100 per year.
“Our core mission is to serve all girls and give them a really excellent leadership experience,” Navarette said. “So we do offer scholarship opportunities. So I would say to anyone who is concerned about financial issues with being part of the Girl Scouts, please don’t let that dissuade you from joining the organization and providing that experience for your girl.”
Navarette says this is the time to join.
“We are at a time in history where girls are really being able to start taking leadership opportunities and take advantage of those that weren’t necessarily available to them historically,” Navarette said. “And so I think looking for opportunities where girls can really build those skills is really, really important. And so I think like for all the opportunities, including here at Girl Scouts, is a really important thing for all families to think about how they’re going to get those girls, those experiences and those skills to help them be the leaders and the next generation that are going to really make a difference in our world.”
According to the 2017 “State of Girls” report on GirlScouts.org, the most recent report, girls are increasingly struggling with obesity, marijuana use, and emotional health. In 2007, 19% of high school girls had considered suicide. In 2015, that number jumped to 23 percent.
In the United States, there are about 2.5 million Girl Scouts — including 750,000 adult members who work as volunteers with over 100 local Girl Scout councils. More than 50 million women in America have been in the Girl Scouts.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 only 5% of CEOs and 12% of other top executives in the S&P 500 were women.
So it probably is just arts and crafts. If the art is gaining leadership skills and the craft is running your own business one day.