When she isn’t working as a pastry chef or spending quality time with her husband, there’s a good chance that Kathleen Pearce of Voorhees, N.J.,, is involved with the Girl Scouts.
Pearce became a Girl Scout in 1970, when she was 7. Today, at 54, she’s even more devoted to the organization that she’s loved for nearly her entire life.
“I tell everyone I’m hooked,” says Pearce, a master trainer, program volunteer and former troop leader with the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey. “I have a lifetime membership. My husband has a lifetime membership. Girl Scouting will be around long after I’m gone — that’s my hope.”
In her years as a Scout and Scout leader, Pearce has truly embodied the spirit of the Girl Scouts in all that she does, providing girls with a grounding in the ideals of Scouting while remaining true to her lifelong commitment to mentoring youth.
Keeping Up a Family Tradition With Girl Scouts
Pearce grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan, charmed by stories about her mother’s adventures in Girl Scouting. For years, she daydreamed about joining, and when she entered second grade, she was finally old enough. (Today, girls can join in kindergarten.)
“I couldn’t wait — Girl Scouts was the ‘in’ thing,” Pearce says. “Girls got to wear their uniforms to school on the days that they had meetings, and that was so cool.”
Pearce remained a Girl Scout through high school graduation and completed all four levels of scouting. (Today, there are six.) She earned her First Class Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout could earn (called the Gold Award by today’s Scouts). In fact, she earned so many badges, she ran out of room on her uniform to display all of her honors.
“My mother bought a second sash and spliced it, so I had a longer sash to put badges on,” Pearce says.
Maintaining a Commitment
Most girls part ways with the Girl Scouts after high school. Not Pearce. When she went to Michigan State University, she volunteered with the Girl Scouts troop closest to campus in order to fulfill a college community service requirement and stay connected to the organization.
After graduation, Pearce moved to New Jersey, started working and continued volunteering with the Girl Scouts. Her long-standing devotion is notable because most Girl Scout volunteers are parents of members. Pearce never had children, but that didn’t dull her commitment.
“Thinking about having kids was just sort of never on the radar,” says Pearce, who was a Sister with her religious order for nine years in her 20s, then dated her husband for four years in her 30s before getting married at age 36. “But Girl Scouts was always on the radar.”
In 1999, after spending more than a decade helping the local Girl Scouts Council in whatever way she was needed, Pearce became a troop leader. For the next 16 years, 204 girls joined her troops. Pearce helped them through every milestone, from Girl Scout cookie sales to community service projects to camping trips. A dozen girls remained through high school graduation, just like Pearce had.
Learning New Skills and Having Fun
As Pearce’s girls got older, she nudged them to take on more responsibilities, helping them realize their capabilities.
“Girl Scouts has always been about making girls independent,” Pearce says. “Obviously, you don’t start with big challenges, you start with little ones. That’s the success. With guidance, they can do anything.”
After Pearce demonstrates a skill, she steps back so the girls can practice, which boosts their confidence.
“This is the girls’ experience — I had my experience in the ’70s, and I try not to intervene,” says Pearce, who enjoys letting girls figure things out on their own. “When you take girls out canoeing, there’s nothing tragic that can happen. They tip their canoe? You teach them to get back in. When they’re learning archery, the world didn’t stop if the arrow went over the tarp. You get it and try again.”
With each lesson, Pearce tries to emulate the wishes of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.
“She never said you should be earning 100 badges,” Pearce says. “She never said you should be a world-class camper. She said you should be learning new skills and you should be having fun. If you didn’t have fun, then I didn’t do it right.”
Pearce believes that the essence of the Girl Scouts experience has remained the same, although certain aspects have changed since she joined in 1970.
“Girl Scouts was always focused on science, on the arts, on the outdoors, so in that sense, Girl Scouting hasn’t changed,” Pearce says. “‘Little-T’ traditions have changed. I wouldn’t have been working on robots, which is one of the new badges. But I think in terms of ‘Big-T’ traditions, Girl Scouts has been pretty much the same since I’ve been involved.”
Creating New Opportunities Every Day
The girls from her old troop have since moved on to college, but Pearce is still volunteering with the Girl Scouts. She teaches CPR, first aid and babysitting skills to leaders and girls in other troops. She’s a canoe and archery instructor. She has worked as a cook and boating instructor at a Girl Scouts sleep-away camp in upstate New York for the past five summers, with no plans to stop. And she works with her local Girl Scouts Council in New Jersey to create programs and training opportunities for girls and leaders, even when nobody’s exactly sure how to implement some of the ideas.
“We say, ‘Let’s figure out a way to make that happen,’” Pearce says. “If I had to wait until everything was perfectly figured out, I wouldn’t be a college grad. I wouldn’t be married. We can’t approach life that way. Every day is a new challenge.”
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