This is my first year as an adult Girl Scout volunteer. Wanting to make a positive impact on the girls in my troop, their families, and my fellow volunteers, I find myself reflecting on the amazing Girl Scout volunteers who were a part of my childhood. Foremost in that group was Laura Hansen, my troop leader from 1st through 12th grade! She created experiences for me and my Girl Scout sisters that brought the Girl Scout Promise and Law to life and gave us opportunities to develop into our best possible selves.
It takes the mastery of many skills to foster success, growth, and friendship. Laura had those skills, in spades. Under Laura’s leadership, Girl Scouts wasn’t about how many badges we earned and sewed on our sashes. It was about the community we built and the people we helped. It was about the enriching experiences we had and the lessons we learned as we overcame challenges and accomplished our goals.
Laura gently guided and supported us on our endeavors which never felt out of reach, even though we did exceptional things. She encouraged us to lead, but never made us feel overwhelmed. She let us stumble with missteps, but never let us fall, and she helped us to learn from our experiences. Laura was an excellent leader because of how she modeled many life skills for us and supported us as we learned. Here are a few of those skills:
Laura gave us opportunities to explore who we were. I remember struggling to figure out my values, separate from my parents, peers, and community, as part of a badge or award we were pursuing. As Laura assisted me, I recognized that I was an individual and I had a choice in what mattered to me. It was a challenging and liberating investigation. We also spent much time thinking about who we wanted to become – what career we would pursue and identifying how we could learn more about it.
In addition to building our strength as individuals, Laura developed our collaborative skills and allowed us to see the value of our contributions to our troop and community. She challenged our assumptions about what we thought our capabilities were by supporting us as we exceeded our own, and others, expectations and explored beyond our comfort zones. Though I am naturally a ‘wall flower,’ Laura had each member of my troop take turns leading, facilitating, following, and debating to reach consensus, all while recognizing the importance of each role and the value of the group as a whole. She led us into these explorations by gradually increasing the newness of the situation so that it was exciting, instead of scary. From a young age, she empowered us to make our own troop decisions. We chose the activities we wanted to have and the badges we wanted to earn. As we got older, we welcomed more tasks and took on greater responsibility. My sister scout, Rachel, reflected on the fact that Laura trusted her, as a teenager, to handle relatively large sums of money as our troop treasurer. This was a role Rachel didn’t know she was capable of until Laura gave her the opportunity to prove that she was.
Under Laura’s leadership, we explored our community and the world in ways that we could not have imagined on our own. We spent an overnight visiting the many different people who worked night jobs, including going to a bank to watch workers sorting checks, to the Port of Oakland to see shipping containers being unloaded, to a bakery to watch sweets being created, and to the Coast Guard Navigation Station on Treasure Island. We developed a love for the outdoors as we camped and explored in community, state, and national parks. Our most exciting exploration, however, was participating in an exchange program with our sister city, Sakai, Japan, an experience that ignited my love of culture and travel.
Not many people would commit as much time and energy to a group of girls as Laura did. She was my leader for 12 years. We began by meeting once a week, but in the year before our trip to Japan, we met three times a week. Her commitment to us and to Girl Scouts was above and beyond what any other adult, besides my parents, did for me. The consistency of her presence and the quality of her leadership gave me, and my sister scouts, stability in times of turbulence in our childhoods.
Laura modeled what it meant to commit to something and then stick with it. After our trip to Japan was planned, Laura became pregnant, but she kept her commitment to travel with us even though it meant she had to sew a special maternity uniform and travel while over 7 months pregnant! Laura wasn’t a Girl Scout leader for the attention or recognition. She was a leader because she wanted to make the world a better place and she cultivated that same desire in us.
Laura also instilled in us a strong commitment to serve our community. She taught us to help our neighbors and contribute to events and projects, including singing to senior citizens, sharing art to cheer up others, and serving as the color guard in the annual community parade. Now, as adults, my Girl Scout sisters and I continue to be community-minded and feel responsible to ‘give back.’ We volunteer with our children’s schools and extracurricular activities, with Girl Scouts, city government, advocacy groups, and some of us work in education or healthcare. Furthermore, we are the people walking around campgrounds and our city streets trying to pick up every little last piece of plastic and trash left by previous visitors in our effort to follow the Girl Scout creed that Laura loved to share, to always leave places better than we found them.
Laura respected us for who we were. I never felt like I needed to morph into someone else. I was young when we traveled to Japan. I remember getting my period while we were at a camporee in the middle of our time in Japan. It was pouring rain, the environment was unfamiliar, and I felt physically terrible. I was supposed to sleep in a tent with a bunch of Japanese Girl Scouts that I didn’t know, but I was definitely feeling physically and emotionally overwhelmed. Laura took one look at me and asked if I wanted to sleep in the shelter building. I didn’t have to plead with her or make a case for why I needed special accommodation, she just understood I needed some support. She knew me so well that she could see I was dealing with more than I could handle, and she gave me what I needed so I could enjoy the rest of the camping trip. And I did. One good night’s sleep and I was back to enjoying myself and fully participating.
Laura was aware of our developmental stages. For a cooking badge, my troop naively decided to make sausage. It is an experience that none of us will forget. While cranking the tool that ground the meat and shoving the meat mixture into intestines, we didn’t hold back our disgust. Laura just let us express ourselves, she may have even joined us. I can imagine other leaders telling us to hush and get over ourselves, that it was just food that we had all eaten before, but Laura knew we were teenage girls who had been perfectly content believing that sausages magically appear in a supermarket. It may seem like a small thing, but her acceptance and permission for us to express how we felt was powerful.
Years of watching Laura model understanding had a huge impact on me and my Girl Scout sisters. By showing us compassion and understanding, we were able to learn how to show those things to our friends, family, and strangers equally.
Creating and Executing a Plan
My mother credits Laura with teaching me how to be self-sufficient. Laura taught us to plan for long-term goals, to break them down into steps, and to mark accomplishments along the way. Laura was up front about expectations, which is probably why nothing seemed too hard or too complicated. She let us know what was expected and when it would happen.
Before we went to Japan, we made several commitments and built a plan for how we would accomplish them. We would study Japanese, raise money to pay for our trip, dress and conduct ourselves appropriately as representatives of our council and Girl Scouts, and we would host the Japanese Girl Scouts when they came to our community. When I think about it now, that seems like an awful lot for an 11-year-old to embrace, but I did, without hesitation.
After we made our plan, we followed through. We welcomed older girls from another troop to join us as we prepared and traveled to Japan. We met once a week to learn Japanese; we had a regular weekly meeting to earn badges, our Silver Leadership Award, and our Silver Award; and we were able to serve our community while raising money to finance our trip. Some of the most memorable fundraisers were cleaning up trash after an event in a public park; acting as servers at a Moose Lodge spaghetti feed; tirelessly selling cookies in front of grocery stores during Girl Scout cookie season; and making and selling cotton candy at numerous community events. We made so much cotton candy that my arm still has the muscle memory of how to hold and move the base and how to carefully add sugar to the machine without it spraying everywhere!
When it came time for us to host the Japanese scouts, Laura gave us the responsibility for planning the event. At 15, that, too, seems like a huge responsibility, but at the time I remember feeling honored that she trusted us with the job. I imagine she did many things behind the scenes to ensure the safety and enjoyment of the scouts involved, but I still feel such pride that we facilitated the experience. She gave us ownership and because of how she structured our opportunities, we embraced them and excelled at them. As a result, we had the confidence and experience to excel in other areas of our lives.
When I have faced challenges as an adult, I remind myself of what I accomplished as a Girl Scout and the skills Laura taught me. Instead of retreating from them, I find the confidence to pursue my dreams. That’s what a great Girl Scout leader looks like: one that models the skills, trust, and compassion that girls need to grow and succeed as adults.
What to do next
- Share great memories of your Girl Scout leaders in the comment section below.
- Love hearing stories about Girl Scout alums? There’s plenty more where this came from!
- Learn more about another inspiring Girl Scout volunteer, Trina Merriman, who helped start Golden Gate Bridging.
- Have a story to share about the impact you or a fellow volunteer has made, or want to share how Girl Scouts has impacted your life? Share your story!
Heidi Brehm—Heidi is an assistant troop leader in Albany/Berkeley. She looked forward to being a Girl Scout volunteer for many years and is so glad she has finally made the time to do so. Girl Scouts played a pivotal role in Heidi’s childhood, providing enriching activities with her troop, service unit, and at council overnight camps. She is enjoying the community, shared values, and friendship of Girl Scouts after many years away.