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Changing troops: American Heritage Girls offers alternative to Girl Scouts

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Photographs by Special to the Democrat-Gazette

American Heritage Girls unit leaders (top left and right) stand with a group in the Tenderheart level for girls ages 6 to 9. The Kansas City archdiocese singled out the 22-year-old nonprofit as an alternative to Girl Scouts in May, and the faith-based scouting organization is gaining momentum in Arkansas and nationwide.

Five years ago, Jennifer Walker and her family were new to the Benton area and she was looking for an activity she and her 6-year-old daughter could do together while serving others.

Walker, 38, had grown up in Girl Scouts and gone on to be a Girl Scouts troop leader, but was looking for a "Christ-centered" Scouting experience for her daughter when she went online and found the faith-based nonprofit organization American Heritage Girls.

"The more I read, the more it [looked] like what [American Heritage Girls] were trying to do is raise a Proverbs 31 woman," Walker said. "A woman who is confident in her own skills and gifts and talents, and who will serve others, and serve her community and raise a family."

Walker approached the children's youth director at Benton's Midtowne Church, where she and her family attend services, to ask about the possibility of starting a troop. She was pointed in the direction of fellow parishioner Sara Ivy, who also had been interested in starting an American Heritage Girls troop. (Midtowne is a Baptist denomination, according to Michelle Wilson, administrative assistant at the church.)

Today, the troop is approaching its fifth year in operation.

FORMED IN 1995

American Heritage Girls stemmed from a club formed by Ohioan Patti Garibay in 1995 to help her third daughter navigate her preteen and teen years in a way that would help her "to become a godly woman."

Garibay had been a successful troop leader, organizer and area delegate in Girl Scouts for 13 years when in 1993 the Girl Scouts decided at its national convention that an asterisk would be placed next to the word "God" in the Girl Scout promise and the group would allow Scouts to substitute another word according to their beliefs.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh,'" Garibay said. "[I] really saw the need for something that was more in line with our family's values, particularly our Christian values ... and [my daughter] deserved the same kind of formation that I felt the Girl Scouts were providing at that time."

Some of Garibay's friends helped spread the word about the club through word of mouth and phone calls in an age before social media, and interest quickly grew.

"People started to learn about this concept [of a faith-based scouting group] ... and they were hungry to contribute to it," Garibay said. "We started to see God's hand in this and that this was way bigger than ourselves, that there was a niche need for some kind of organization that would be Christ-centered yet have a scouting message to it."

EIGHT IN THE STATE

There were eight troops in Arkansas as of mid-July, according to the American Heritage Girls website. The group announced that Rogers had a new troop in December 2012; the founding of the Jacksonville group last year makes it one of the most recent troops to be formed, and groups also exist in Vilonia, Van Buren, Siloam Springs, Atkins and Fort Smith.

At first glance, American Heritage Girls shares commonalities with other scouting organizations. Troops meet in a group format and are separated by age brackets into what the organization terms "squads," each of which is guided and supervised by what the organization calls unit leaders. A typical troop meeting for the troop, however, will begin with a larger gathering of girls across all age brackets, and one squad will lead a brief opening ceremony where the American Heritage Girls oath -- "I promise to love God, cherish my family, honor my country and serve in my community" -- is recited before the individual squads meet with their leaders.

God flows through all aspects of American Heritage Girls. Squad meetings begin with prayer and sometimes a devotional, Walker said, and girls will on occasion bring up a concern at the beginning of a meeting to be prayed about as a group.

Melissa Haralson, 50, a coordinator for the troop in Atkins, said one of the draws about American Heritage Girls is that its meetings are a place where girls can freely express their religious devotion through prayer and other means.

"This is one of the things where we can get a group of girls and we can pray and we don't have to feel bad about it, and we don't have to worry about being taken to court for praying for each other," Haralson said. "We can teach about God's creation just by looking out[side] and doing a nature badge -- [faith is] something that we can feel free to talk to them about."

MUST RECITE OATH

Members of American Heritage Girls aren't required to be Christian or to belong to any religious group, said Garibay, but must recite the oath -- complete with the word "God" -- at every meeting, and spiritual development begins early on.

"We don't wait until you're 14 to infuse the importance of a relationship with Christ," Garibay said. "It starts with the youngest girl, the Pathfinder [for girls ages 5 and 6]. ... As age appropriate as [spiritual development can] occur they are able to learn more about Christ and who they are in Him ... [that] they are truly not just princesses but daughters of the king, and that is where their identity should come from, not from what society says about them.

"It's a well-rounded program that is not just faith-based but rather shows the relevance of faith in the things that you do, rather than just pull off the shelf on Sunday and then maybe use it at church."

Garibay's sentiments about the well-roundedness of what American Heritage Girls do rings true in the "All God's Children" badge, one of 275 the girls can earn. Among the 29 requirements to attain the badge, girls must learn about disabilities such as autism and ADHD; engage in empathy exercises (one requires the girls to dress themselves while wearing unwieldy work gloves, to gain an idea of physical difficulty as someone's everyday way of life); and teach younger girls in the troop about "myths and misconceptions that influence the general public's understanding of people with disabilities."

The organization's top service honor, the Stars and Stripes Award, is often compared not to the Girl Scouts' Gold or Silver awards but to the Boy Scouts' rank of Eagle Scout.

"The Stars and Stripes award is supposedly more robust than the Eagle Scouts as far as difficulty, so it's a major deal when a girl completes that," Michelle Beckham-Corbin, a marketing specialist and ambassador for American Heritage Girls, said June 12 at the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix.

Glenn Dillard, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Harding University in Searcy and an Eagle Scout, said someone who has earned the Stars and Stripes award shows the ability to follow through with a commitment -- one that the university decided to begin awarding in 2012 with a yearly scholarship for those who have earned the top award and continue to serve their community.

"[Harding] feel[s] those students are leaders, and we want those leaders on our campus," Dillard said. "We're going to do what we can to encourage those young leaders to come on campus and continue that leadership here and in the future."

About 3 percent of girls in the organization earn the award, Garibay said, and her daughter was not among those with the honor.

"She regrets it every day," Garibay said. "But I love ... that the Lord put [that] in my story, that my own daughter didn't earn a Stars and Stripes award."

'TROUBLING TRENDS'

American Heritage Girls became the focus of national attention in May when Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann released a statement announcing the decision of the archdiocese to end its relationship with the Girl Scouts of America, citing its "promotion ... of programs and materials reflective of many of the troubling trends in our secular culture." Naumann recommended a transition "toward the chartering of American Heritage Girls troops,"

"When this story hit ... we were mentioned by everyone from the Washington Post to the Washington Times, Huffington Post," said Amanda Martin of Cincinnati, another ambassador at the convention in June.

Garibay said the organization received "hundreds and thousands" of inquiries after the Kansas City archdiocese's announcement, with parents wanting to know more about American Heritage Girls and how to start a troop.

The Archbishop of St. Louis, Robert Carlson, made a similar statement announcing its separation from Girl Scouts in February last year, but no mention was made of a particular scouting alternative for girls. It also questioned its future with Boy Scouts of America -- a "once trusted organization," according to the statement -- with which American Heritage Girls had a six-year partnership until the Boy Scouts' announcement in May 2015 that openly gay boys would be allowed as members in the organization. The organization has partnered with Trail Life USA, a Christian-focused scouting organization for boys, since 2015.

48,000 GIRLS

Twenty-two years into its founding, American Heritage Girls has 48,000 girls as members worldwide in 14 countries, including Germany, China, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Tanzania and South Korea. Nationwide, there are 1,100 troops and 15,000 volunteers.

The interest in American Heritage Girls in Arkansas has in some cases been around longer than the troops themselves. In response to the January 2013 announcement by the organization on Facebook that a troop had begun in Siloam Springs, one post by a parent read, "I'm in AR and have been waiting for an American Heritage group to open near us! My daughter used to be a GS, but doesn't participate any longer as their values are not in line with our own."

The troop Haralson helps lead in Atkins averages 25 girls, most of whom are in first, second or third grade. The troop focuses heavily on service projects -- from making survival kits for area police officers to making meals for the hungry and putting together packages for inhabitants at a battered women's shelter -- and racked up about 500 service hours last year.

Walker's and Haralson's daughters have each won level awards, which girls attain when they are deemed to have done a particularly good job during their time in a squad through learning, badge work and service hours.

For Haralson, though, the larger focus is on "building women of integrity," as the American Heritage Girls motto states.

"It's not just God," Haralson said. "We've got to get the family and the community and country in there as well."

Walker, coordinator of the Benton troop, said the number of girls has "just exploded" since its founding, which she said was entirely "a God thing."

"God has given us at least 40 girls every year," said Walker, who said about 40 girls is the most that Midtowne church is chartered to lead. "We max out the campgrounds at the state park."

"I just feel like [American Heritage Girls] is going to continue to grow at a very good pace," Garibay said. "We try not to overgrow because we are not just growing in numbers, we're growing our program along the way ... it's something that had to be created along the way, as well as the volunteer roles and all the rest of it.

A unit leader and a member of the Explorer squad, for girls ages 9 to 12, perform an exercise during one of the troop’s squad meetings.

The Tenderheart squad leads one of the Benton troop’s opening ceremonies by reciting the American Heritage Girls oath.

"My biggest goal is to be directly God's will for what He wants in this ministry, and that will be enough for me."

Religion on 08/12/2017

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