Greatest Person: Celebrating 100 Years of the Girl Scouts
Barbara Cooley Thaw's giving spirit has influenced Girl Scouts and many others throughout her years of volunteer service. Today, she'll join about 20 local troops in celebrating the Girl Scouts centennial.
Barbara Cooley Thaw has received a lot of hugs from young Girl Scouts over the years. Whether hiking through the woods, doing a holiday craft or working on badges, she knows it’s not the activity, but rather how she treats the girls that prompts the affection. Still, it may be years before they realize just how much their leaders care for them.
“You may never see it. It’s not necessarily instant gratification,” she said, “but it’s there.”
Cooley Thaw, service unit manager of the Glen Oaks Girl Scouts, has been involved for almost 20 years as a volunteer with the scouts and even longer as a volunteer committed to service in the Pittsburgh region.
She'll join today in the local Sewickley celebration when the Girl Scouts mark their 100th birthday.
On March 12, 1912, Juliette Gordon Low held the first Girl Scout meeting in Savannah, GA. An organization that started from small beginnings today comprises more than 3.2 million girls and adults members, with nearly half of all U.S. women at some point or another enjoying the adventures of scouting.
There are approximately 20 troops of varying ages in the Glen Oaks Girl Scout Community. Many will be represented in the celebration at 4 p.m. today at the Sewickley Municipal Building.
Leading up to today’s festivities, the Girl Scouts tied green ribbons with weather-resistant trefoils around 100 trees in the borough as a way of alerting the community to the centennial birthday.
Glen Oaks has about 180 scouts and almost 70 registered adults. The hard working “service team” that keeps up on council policy and paperwork, as well as organizes local events, consists of a registrar, recruiter, coaches, trainers and an award coordinator.
All scouts, young and old, are invited to participate in a flag ceremony and songs at the ceremony, where the Girl Scout Promise and Law will be proudly recited.
'The Evolution is Constant'
Cooley Thaw, 53, of Bell Acres, said the Girl Scouts as an organization continues to evolve, helping girls today become leaders tomorrow. Girl Scout history is filled with “firsts” and innovations.
Long before it was popular, the Girl Scouts organization was integrated. All girls were welcome, regardless of their race or physical and mental abilities. Often isolated in the home environment, early scouts became a part of the community where they learned traditional skills such as sewing and homemaking. They also were encouraged to branch out into activities long thought to be “boys” territory. They played basketball, learned first aid and how to tell time by viewing the stars.
Today’s scouting offer leadership programs, she said, and mentors for older scouts. Glen Oaks’ is fortunate to have adults whose “day jobs” are composed of teachers, Ph.D.'s, pharmacists, financial managers and therapists. Cooley Thaw said you don’t have to look far to find a capable adult to inspire the girls. Girl Scout badges have been modified to reflect today’s society and interests.
“Girl Scouts have evolved as a direct response to the current needs of the girls they serve,” Cooley Thaw said.
“They continue to be responsive to the times. Kids today are busy with sports, music and dramatic pastimes; scouts must be relevant to compete. You’ve got to keep them interested by offering the latest and greatest. Sewing is no longer considered de rigeur for today’s young woman,” she said with a smile.
In addition to science and math-based activities, girls are taught healthy habits, computer skills and safety, and how to set and achieve goals. Community service is also a large part of scouting and one on which Glen Oaks prides itself. Their local day camp chooses something each year on which to focus. Last year, they collected 180 pounds of toiletries and snacks to send to military personnel in Afghanistan.
Soon, donated Girl Scout cookies—a popular treat—will make their way to a Sewickley local who was recently posted far from home. Glen Oaks scouts also maintain parks and contribute to the Fall Food share, and they craft tray favors for the Meals on Wheels program.
They are especially proud of the scouts who have “adopted” the Union Aid Society residents. Badge-wearing girls can be found in the Sewickley Memorial Day Parade, cheering on survivors at the Relay for Life, or manning a cookie booth at local establishments. The squishy dolls they made for Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital’s emergency room were a huge hit.
“It makes us proud to reach out, near and far. Being known for community service is a great honor” Cooley Thaw said.
This is not unique to Glen Oaks. During World War II, President Roosevelt presented a “paycheck” to Girl Scouts for 15 million hours of service. The 19th Amendment prohibits all United States citizens the right to vote, regardless of their sex. Girl Scouts volunteered to babysit while women made history and went to the polls.
Fairy Troop Mother
As the Service Unit manager, Cooley Thaw is surrounded by extremely motivated leaders. As a longtime scout leader, she is a great role model who embodies all of the qualities the Girl Scouts stand for -- volunteerism, passion, creativity, unlimited generosity. Her leaders affectionately dubbed her the “fairy troop mother” and her emails often end with the initials, FTM.
Along with her understanding husband, Robert, Barbara has raised two children, Rachel and Marcus. Their activities were varied and didn’t overlap.
In subsequent years, they played high school sports and participated for eight years in marching band, concert band, chorus and in school musicals, Youth and Government as well as National Honor Society. They both volunteered at church, made time for day camp and math league. It made for hectic schedules and lots of juggling.
Last year, Cooley Thaw grew out of being the band parent treasurer, the Home and School Secretary and a swim team and soccer parent. Once Rachel graduated from Quaker Valley High School, she could have taken the easy road and left Girl Scouts behind. Because of her leaders and wonderful experiences with Troop 476, she stayed on as the service unit manager and day camp director.
In 2008, five of her leaders had daughters starting kindergarten; she and longtime co-leader Brenda Kovacs signed on to lead that troop. Four years later, they are going strong.
Cooley Thaw also volunteers for numerous other groups. She is the event chair for the eighth annual Quaker Valley Relay for Life and secretary for the Union Aid Society and Sweetwater Center for the Arts. She has been a volunteer at the Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill since 1977 and is active at Mifflin Avenue United Methodist Church in Wilkinsburg, running Vacation Bible School and serving as chairwoman of the Nurture Committee.
A Measure of Dedication
One might say Cooley Thaw passed on the importance of service. She is a merit badge counselor for Boy Scouts and, despite her son achieving Eagle Scout rank and moving on to college, she still coordinates their winter luminary fund-raising sale. Both of her children volunteer at the local summer day camp. It’s their 17th year.
"Scouting, in all forms, offers much and it’s important to give back a little of what you received," she said.
“While being a scout volunteer is a worthy undertaking, there is a measure of dedication that many are not aware of. We adhere to the strict training guidelines set forth by Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania and track all of the requirements. From clearances to Girl Scout training, to the initial interview, it can be daunting, and yes, sometimes tedious,” Cooley Thaw said. “All trainings are taught with the idea that you have no idea how to cook over a fire or manage a roomful of gals. I tell parents that when you see an adult scout light a match, at least six hours of training is involved.”
The rewards, however, overwhelm the mundane. There are holiday parties, events with parents, and the annual Unique Boutique where the girls get to model jewelry. Cooley Thaw will continue to challenge the girls, but there's always room for fun.
“I always say to the leaders, the first priority is keep the kids safe. Then, it’s up to you to make it fun. The possibilities,” she said, “are endless.”
For these reasons and many more, Barbara Cooley Thaw has been named Sewickley Patch's "Greatest Person" of the Month.