Hey! Ho! Let's Go!

The Idea: A Two-Day Boot Camp For Girls—Held in Conjunction With the U.S. Military

The Goal: Build Skills and Confidence—While Developing a Deeper Understanding of the Services

It was one of those ideas that pop up unexpectedly and don't let go.

In 2007, Girl Scout volunteer Maureen Conner attended a Memorial Day celebration in Mercer, Pa. "We're a very patriotic town," she says. "Yet I knew many of the girls in my troop had never actually spoken to a member of the military." Conner's idea was to put together an event that would help Girl Scouts learn leadership skills and develop a deeper understanding of the sacrifices military families make in the name of service to their country.

"I also wanted to create an opportunity for the girls to challenge themselves and do something that might intimidate them," Conner says. She enlisted her best friend and fellow troop leader Kathy Shaffer, and together they developed an idea they would dub "boot camp."

Their first step was to approach the military, but Conner first had to get over her own fear. "I was scared to death when I walked into the recruiter's office," she recalls. She quickly found, though, that people in uniform were eager to work with her.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Patterson was one of them. A professor of military science at John Carroll University in nearby University Heights, Ohio, Patterson notes that "one of the Army's priorities is to provide leadership training to school-age youth. Our only goal is to create better citizens with no emphasis on recruiting." He told Conner he'd volunteer and would get a team of Army personnel to participate. Once the Army was on board, Conner found the other services easy to entice.

Boot Camp Agenda
0800–0830 Registration
0845–0915 Opening flag ceremony
0930–1230 Sessions: goal setting, marching, and open Q&A
1230–1330 Lunch
1345–1715 Sessions: self-defense, knot tying, signal flags, ranger beads, banner making
1730–1830 Dinner
1900–1915 Flag retreat
1930–2015 Slide presentation by a Marine recently returned from Iraq, on the daily realities of deployment
2030–2130 Campfire sing-along
2230 Lights out

0600–0700 Breakfast
0715–0730 Opening flag ceremony
0745–1300 Sessions: obstacle course, water safety, rock-climbing wall
1300–1345 Lunch, with an address by a state senator and a local veteran
1400–1600 Sessions: obstacle course, land navigation, compass skills, clean-up patrols, skit preparation
1615–1700 Closing ceremony with presentation of skits

What resulted was a day-and-a-half event in April 2007 for local Girl Scouts. The success of that program spurred Conner and Shaffer to expand the boot camp to two full days in August 2008 and to extend the invitation to Girl Scouts from all over western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and upstate New York. At that second event, 70 Girl Scouts, 20 troop leaders, and 35 military professionals and adult volunteers took over Camp Elliott, a nearby Girl Scout campground. Girls were divided into patrols, and the patrols rotated through a robust list of workshops that included navigation, knot tying, flag signaling, water safety, goal setting, and an obstacle course. (See sidebar for the complete agenda.)

Patterson manned a table on the first day to answer the girls' questions about the Army and led a workshop on using ranger beads—a navigational technique for tracking how far you've traveled on foot so you can pinpoint where you are on a map. Female Army cadets taught the girls self-defense techniques.

"I was surprised and delighted to see how enthusiastically these Girl Scouts threw themselves into each mission," says Patterson. "They immediately absorbed our instructions and were eager to move out on their own." Girls who seemed most interested or experienced in a topic would step up and lead the others, he says, "and at other times those girls would step back and let someone else be in charge for a while. It was refreshing to observe."

The biggest hit was the obstacle course, which put the teams through a series of physical tests including assembling stretchers to carry each other, crawling under netting, and scaling a rock-climbing wall.

Lexie Grinnell, a 14-year-old from nearby Hadley, Pa., was a fan. "I liked the obstacle course because I love sports and it was a great physical challenge," she says. Shaffer, the volunteer who helped start the programs, notes that "the course forced the girls to collaborate. The whole team had to complete each step before they could move on."

Jodi Chase, a Girl Scout volunteer based in Pittsburgh, reports that her Girl Scouts appreciated this leadership-building aspect the most. "The girls liked how they were given tools and a problem, and then the military members stepped back and let the girls take over. The girls were challenged to think solutions through, not just given steps to perform."  

Lessons from the camp have extended into the girls' daily lives. "The self-defense workshop made me confident that I could defend myself if I get bullied, which makes me less nervous about going to college in a few years," Grinnell says. "And the public-speaking competition made me more confident to speak to my class and helped me run for junior high student council."

Boot camp has also built relationships between the Girl Scouts and neighboring military troops. Last fall, Patterson helped host a one-day survival clinic, which taught skills such as fire building and water procurement and purification. An Army sergeant came to one of Conner's troop meetings to teach part of the Discover Your World badge work. Conner and Shaffer put on a third boot camp this past summer, and this time the Girl Scout Cadettes who attended the first camp worked as runners and kitchen staff.

Conner's Girl Scouts also adopted the family of Lieutenant Sarah Weber, a local mom, who was deployed in March of 2009 for a 400-day tour in Iraq. The troop has been sending care packages to Weber and her family, with the girls spearheading care-package assembly parties and filling out all the customs forms to make sure Weber's packages arrive safely.

"Adopting this family has gotten the girls to think differently about the creature comforts we take for granted. It has made them more aware of what our service people are doing without and built their appreciation for the sacrifices our armed service personnel are making," Conner says. "It has helped them feel like they can do anything."

Boot Camp Hosting 101
Team up
Planning a two-day event of this magnitude requires teamwork. "Do not try this by yourself," Girl Scout volunteer Maureen Conner advises. Find another leader whose skill set complements your own.

Start locally
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Patterson suggests connecting with local Army personnel through a nearby college ROTC program or a recruiting station.

Consider business cards
"I ordered free business cards from VistaPrint, listing me as a Girl Scout troop leader," says Conner. 'I hand them out to any service personnel or potential volunteers I meet. It makes you look professional and serious about what you are doing."

Spread the news
Conner found that sharing her plans to invite the media to the event made the military even more interested in participating. "Once I confirmed that our state senator would be addressing the girls, I capitalized on it by sending a press release to every newspaper in the area," she says. Of the 20 press releases she sent out, four papers published an announcement and two papers sent reporters to cover the event.

Keep communicating
Military personnel have an acronym-based language all their own, and they may get deployed or transferred. "Double- and triple-check that you've got the details right and follow everything up by e-mail with a CC to the commanding officer," Conner says.

Say thanks
To show their appreciation, Shaffer and Conner gave each participating service member a mug, a bandana, a thank-you note, and two boxes of Girl Scout cookies. "I also e-mailed thank-yous to their commanding officers, praising their work, and cc'd them," Conner says.