side menu icon

Changing the world, one cookie at a time

Ah, spring.

It brings Easter, March Madness and other time-honored traditions.

Yes, Girl Scout cookies are back.

Even the most diligent dieters find it hard to resist those little morsels of goodness, and Girl Scouts across the country will sell millions of boxes in just eight weeks. The program, now in its 97th year, not only helps girls develop their business acumen, but the proceeds stay within the community. The revenue helps local troops fund trips, service projects and volunteer training, as well as maintenance of camps and other properties.

Girl Scouts of Gateway Council CEO Mary Anne Jacobs, who has been on the job for a little more than nine months, finds it rewarding when she hears from girls of their experiences selling cookies and plans for the proceeds. She recently met one young girl whose troop is going to Peru with the proceeds from their cookie sales. In fact, many troops are able to travel internationally and participate in unique endeavors through their efforts with the program.

“The cookie program is the largest girl-owned business in the country,” said Jacobs. “It teaches them about decision-making, marketing skills, team building and competition.”

Beyond camp, crafts and cookies

While the annual cookie sale is a huge part of the Girl Scout experience, it’s just one component of a multi-tiered program aimed at helping girls not only develop as leaders, but to build confidence by learning new skills.

Nationally, the organization has partnered with Million Women Mentors, a new initiative aimed at reaching out to at least a million young girls and women to support them in pursuing STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — education and careers. Locally, a grant from the duPont Family Foundation will enable the council to present the Wonders of Water program, or WOW, to 250 second- and third-grade girls in Clay County schools.

Set to start later this month, the program will take place at the council’s North Fork Leadership Center near Middleburg, and focus on various issues of water conservation, safety and other related topics. In addition, a similar program called Learning in Florida’s Environment, or LIFE, is planned for middle-school girls.

Environmental education is a big priority for the council. With 250 acres of undeveloped land, the camp bustles with activity nearly every day, filled with students studying the outdoors.

Next month, the council plans to break ground on two new buildings at North Fork, one of which will serve as a community resource center for both troop members and the community.

“It’s important to have an economic commitment to the counties we serve,” Jacobs said.

Sharing resources, multiple benefits

Gateway Council serves 16 counties in Northeast Florida, and the goals vary widely for each community.

“We serve girls in rural, urban and suburban areas, with very diverse needs,” said Jacobs. “Some of them are at-risk or girls living in poverty. We raise funds for them because we believe that every girl should have the opportunity to have the Girl Scout experience, no matter what the situation.”

A recent troop donation was part of that effort.

Cadette Troop 691, based in Fleming Island, collected spare change during a recent father-daughter dance. The troop raised $414 for SHARE, a program that provides assistance to girls who wish to participate in scouting but lack the financial resources.

While the troop had previously worked on charitable projects, such as food drives for Safe Animal Shelter and the Green Cove Springs Food Pantry, this was their first official fundraiser.

“The girls got to pick what they wanted to do as a project,” said Andrea Brinkman, troop leader. “Afterwards, when we were leaving, they were all talking about next year’s theme; they are really excited to keep it going.”

Brinkman, a former registered nurse, has been a troop leader for eight years. She started when her daughter was in kindergarten and answered the call for volunteers during an introductory meeting. Last year, she also took over her first-grader’s Daisy troop. For her daughters, Brinkman has been thrilled at how scouting has helped them grow. She said her 13-year-old, once extremely shy, has blossomed, and both girls have already developed friendships that she expects will last a lifetime.

The growth of scouting

While the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrated its centennial in 2012, Girl Scouts of Gateway Council was first organized in 1927, when it was called the Duval Girl Scout Council. According to Patricia Knowles, council historian, there were individual troops in existence as early as 1923, with some going back even further.

“In 1917, there was a single troop in Mayport, under the leadership of Mrs. Elizabeth Starke, who was called the troop captain,” said Knowles. “This was just after the U.S. entered World War I, and the girls actually patrolled the coast on horseback, carrying rifles.”

By 1930, girls were trekking to Clay County’s Camp Chowenwaw for camp-outs and outdoor recreation.

The first Camp Chowenwaw was located on Doctors Lake and owned by Mrs. R.R. Lake, who gave her permission for the Girl Scouts to use her property for camping. Two years later, the council purchased 72 acres on Black Creek in Green Cove Springs, and the site served the Girl Scouts until it was sold to the county in 2006.

Troop activity in Clay was virtually nonexistent until about 1950. At the time, there was one lone troop in Orange Park. Six years later, Doctors Inlet was added to the jurisdiction of the council and in 1959, Clay County joined in its entirety.

Today, there are 1,346 Girl Scouts in Clay, with five active service units.

Coping with controversy

The annual cookie program is not without its rough spots. In some parts of the country, where booth sales have already started, there have been several reports of thieves absconding with cookie proceeds. In California, a girl selling cookies door-to-door was reportedly met by a man pointing a gun at her. The girl’s father, accompanying her on her rounds, witnessed the alleged incident and immediately called police.

While such incidents are isolated, it does highlight the importance of safety. Most door-to-door sales these days are among friends and family members only. Prior to the start of booth sales, the council provides training for adult volunteers as well as the troop members.

“The safety of the girls is always first and foremost,” Jacobs said. “During booth sales there is always an adult present, so the girls are never by themselves.

Jacobs added that volunteers are also encouraged to use cell phone video whenever possible, as a way of keeping an extra “set of eyes” on things.

Also on the radar is a planned cookie boycott, organized by pro-life groups in Wisconsin and Texas due to what it perceives as an endorsement by GSUSA of a pro-choice political candidate. Similar claims first surfaced a few years ago, although there is no hard evidence to support them.

Here on the First Coast, there has been little fallout from such reports. Jacobs has received exactly two phone calls on the matter, primarily from volunteers who wanted to know how to respond to the issue, should it arise.

“It’s truly unfortunate that some entities want to use our nationally recognized program to further their own agenda,” Jacobs said.

Tomorrow’s leaders

Read a biography of a notable woman and, chances are, you’ll find a former Girl Scout. From current First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush to Debbi Fields, president of Mrs. Fields’ Cookies, and Dr. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, there are endless examples. There are plenty here in Clay as well, from Kathryn Wills, marketing director of the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts, to Susan King, managing director of the Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum.

Jacobs was a Girl Scout through high school and, like many, says she can’t help but think back on how the experience shaped her.

“Eighty percent of women business owners were once a Girl Scout,” she said. “This is a true leadership program.”

Anne Hammock: (904) 359-4764 or