By Gaylen Webb, The Economic Review -- What do 12,000 Utahns have in common with Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Sandra Day O'Connor, 68 percent of the women in Congress and 93 percent of NASA's female astronauts?
The 53rd Convention of Girl Scouts of the USA wrapped up in Salt Lake City on Oct. 19 and Debbie Nielson, former acting CEO of the Girl Scouts of Utah, who was just elected to the organization's USA National Board, wants Utahns to know Girl Scouts is about more than "cookies, camping and crafts."
"Girl Scouts is in the business of empowering girls," says Nielson. "If you want to know what a community needs, ask a girl. If you want that community need met, ask a girl."
The convention, which drew more than 6,000 members and supporters from across the nation and the globe to Utah's capital city for four days, focused on empowerment in a big way. Themed "Discover, Connect, Take Action: Girls Change the World," the event highlighted the Girl Scout mission, which is to "build girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place," and provided attendees opportunities to participate in educational and leadership workshops, visit the "Hall of Experiences" and engage in "Conversations of Consequence" – with a little friendship and fun mixed in.
Nielson says the Girl Scout organization empowers girls through activities in science and technology, business and economic literacy and outdoor and environmental awareness. It also fosters the development of leadership skills and self-esteem.
Notable leaders and motivators participating in the convention included Elizabeth Smart, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Bonnie L. Oscarson, Ann Romney and Girl Scouts of the USA Celebrity Spokesperson Robin McGraw.
Girl Scouts of Utah got its start in Ogden about 94 years ago. Founded by Bertha Eccles, the organization has enjoyed four years of growth in membership and now supports 8,500 girl members and about 3,500 adult volunteers. Last year, the Utah council's members recorded more than 500,000 hours of service to their communities, touching every part of the state. And let's not forget the cookies. In 2013 Utah's Girl Scouts sold more than 1.5 million cookies – about 325 boxes of cookies per girl, the highest average in the nation.
As Nielson points out, however, Girl Scouts is more than Thin Mints and Samoas. "It is leadership development," she says. "It is discovering what girls can do to make themselves the best they can be. It is connecting with others around them. It is taking action."
Staged every three years, the Girl Scout convention's stop in Utah was likely an once-in-a-lifetime event. That made the opportunity all the more significant in terms of showcasing the Girl Scouts of Utah, Salt Lake City and the State of Utah, she adds. The decision to host it in Utah was made nearly seven years ago and the Utah council spent nearly two years rounding up volunteers in and out of the state to help put on the event.
"We had to make sure we had 1,000 volunteers for all of the different venues, ushers and greeters, hospitality hosts and support personnel," she continues. "We needed a lot of volunteers. Not just local volunteers, but volunteers from around the country, who were willing to work three-hour shifts that ran from early morning until late at night Tuesday through Sunday. It was a huge undertaking."
In addition to showcasing Utah, the economic benefit from hosting the Girl Scout convention should not be ignored. Visit Salt Lake President and CEO Scott Beck points to surveys conducted by Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) at the University of Utah over the last five years, which indicate the average delegate spends $923 while attending a convention in Salt Lake. Hence, with more than 6,000 visitors, the Girl Scout convention had an estimated economic impact of more than $5.5 million for the state.
The Girl Scout organization began 102 years ago with one woman and 18 girls in Savannah, GA. Girl Scouts' founder Juliette Gordon "Daisy" Low believed in the power of every girl. Her goal was to bring girls out of isolated home environments and into community service and the open air. Therefore, Girl Scouts hiked, played basketball, went on camping trips, learned how to tell time by the stars and studied first aid.
Today's Girl Scouts continue to build on Low's vision of building girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place. Nielson says the organization strives to help girls discover their strengths, passions and talents.
"Girl Scouts offers every girl a chance to do something amazing," she concludes.
Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) is the largest organization for girls in the world, with nearly three million girl and adult members. Headquartered in New York City, the organization has 112 chartered councils that provide direct services to girls and the volunteers who work with them, and to the communities they serve. Girl Scouting is open to all girls from kindergarten through high school. To volunteer, reconnect, donate or join, visit www.girlscouts.org.