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Girl Scouts redesign badges for new century

Sylvia Wolk, a 9-year-old Bedford resident, said she needs to learn how to better manage her money. Sylvia Wolk, a 9-year-old Bedford resident, said she needs to learn how to better manage her money. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / November 8, 2011

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Ruth Bramson, the chief executive of Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, wants to make one thing clear. “We’ll never give up the cookie badge.’’

But as Girl Scouts of the USA prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the organization has revamped its badge lineup, and some - Looking Your Best, and From Fitness to Fashion, among them - have gotten the ax. Others, such as the cookie badge, made the cut, albeit with makeovers.

And some of the 136 badges sound more like topics trending on Twitter than something a fresh-faced girl would pin on her sash.

There’s a Good Credit badge and a Money Manager badge, Locavore, Website Designer, and Netiquette badges, a Science of Happiness badge, and, as a component of a cookie-badge program that has been expanded, a Customer Loyalty badge.

At a time when girls have many extracurricular options, the wide-ranging revamp - the first in 25 years - is an attempt to stay relevant.

“The girls said, ‘We love the camping, we love the cookies, but we want the Girl Scouts to be more about what we’re about,’ ’’ Bramson said.

Badges have always reflected their times; in 1916 the Telegraph badge seemed cutting edge, and in 1920 a Canning badge was pertinent. But in the age of YouTube, the local food movement, and Occupy Wall Street, Girl Scouts have different concerns.

“I don’t want to be one of the people who have bad finances,’’ said Shannon Leary, 17, a senior at the Woodward School in Quincy. She plans to start working toward a financial literacy badge as soon as she is done with college applications.

“A lot of people go to college and open credit cards and spend a lot of money, and then you’re in debt at a really early age and you have a poor credit score,’’ she said. “No one really wants that.’’

Leary also plans to earn a badge for another headline-making subject - the environment. Her interest follows a Girl Scouts trip to Peru and Costa Rica. “The tour guide said the rain forests were being chopped down for cattle, or global warming was impacting them,’’ she said. “I want to do my best to save the world, even though I know that sounds really cliché.’’

In Reading, Kasey Cook, 16, is working toward an updated First Aid badge, and two of the steps involve educating herself about sports-related head injuries and drug and alcohol abuse.

“Unfortunately in Reading in the past couple of months there have been a lot of drug or alcohol-related deaths,’’ Cook said. “If you know the signs [of drug or substance abuse], maybe you’ll be able to help. The worst thing is to be uneducated.’’

“It’s not an official Girl Scouts motto,’’ she added, “but one of the things they teach girls is that knowledge is power. They really try to prepare girls to be leaders of tomorrow.’’

Even if it means looking back to yesterday. Thirty-five of the new badges are in the “legacy’’ category, meaning they’re modernized versions of favorite badges from the Girl Scouts’ 100-year history. Dinner Party has essentially replaced Hostess, with the focus on figuring out where to obtain the ingredients rather than sending invitations.

As for the From Fitness to Fashion badge, that has evolved into Science of Style. “Girls are still interested in how they look and what they wear,’’ said Alisha Niehaus, executive editor of the new badge book, “but now we’ve given it a purposeful bent. They can look at the chemical makeup of sunscreen or makeup, or the use of nanotechnology in fabric.’’

Niehaus left her job as a children’s book editor at Penguin Young Readers Group to oversee the second half of the two-year update of the “Girls Guide to Girl Scouting,’’ which is six books, one for every Girl Scouting level, from Daisy to Ambassador, each around 150 pages long.

Niehaus said the revamp comes at a time when the Girl Scouts have “turned the corner’’ on membership, which hit an all-time high of 3,921,403 members in 1969. “There was not a lot of other things for girls to do,’’ she said in an e-mail, “and women were getting more involved and taking leadership roles - these are just two factors of many factors that affected membership at this time.’’

Membership, which dropped to a post-1969 low in the early 1980s, hit 3,193,502 this year, up from 3,182,142 in 2010.

Ideas for the new badges came out of focus group discussions, with girls, volunteers, and staff from regional councils.

The badges, which range from Comic Artist to Behind the Ballot to Car Care, cover the range of life itself, but they share a goal: to keep girls challenged and engaged, and in the process encourage them to be leaders - which the organization defines as anything from one who stands up for a bullying victim to becoming president of the United States.

Sarah Leshay, a high school teacher and the leader of two troops in the Bedford-Hanscom area, said the update was needed. “Keeping the older girls engaged is really hard,’’ she said, and the more current the badges, the better. “The old photography badge had nothing about digital - that’s how old it was.’’

Another Bedford-Hanscom leader, Nancy Wolk, said her fourth-graders are particularly enthusiastic about the new Savvy Shopper badge - and she is, too.

“Girls have more money than they did in the past,’’ said Wolk, the mother of two scouts, and a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “I’ve noticed a lot of the girls in my group, even the girls are on the lower end of the economic scale, still have more money than I did as a kid. I hear stories of parents borrowing from their kids’ piggy banks to pay the cleaners. It’s good at this age to talk about the fact that just because you have money, you don’t have to go out and spend it.’’

That’s a lesson Wolk’s 9-year-old Scout says she needs to learn. “I have a lot of trouble with my money,’’ said Sylvia. She explained that impulsive purchases - of American Girl doll merchandise and Nintendo games - are making it hard for her to save for a new Nintendo 3DS.

“I basically get a game and then I play it and then I see another one I want and then I run out of money,’’ she said. “I want to learn how to save better.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.