When the Girl Scouts of America celebrates its 100th anniversary Monday evening, March 12, Palo Alto's Girl Scouts will have their 90th anniversary. In 1922, Palo Alto Girl Scouts Service Unit 1 became the first Girl Scout organization in the West.
Today's local group numbers 1,092 girls and 793 adults in 103 troops, from 5-year-old Daisies to high school students. Some of Palo Alto's registered lifetime members are nearly 90 years old, leader Vicki George said.
On Monday, about 400 to 500 Palo Alto Girl Scouts will walk from the Lou Henry Hoover Program Center at Rinconada Park to City Hall, where Mayor Yiaway Yeh will read a proclamation, and the girls and women will shine lights at 7:12 p.m.
Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of President Herbert Hoover, helped established the service group in Palo Alto in 1922. She viewed the Girl Scouts as an appealing way to train young women to respond to crises and disaster. As a troop leader in Washington, D.C., Hoover had established an integrated troop, with white and black girls, which was extremely rare for that time, according to the National First Ladies' Library. Splitting her time between their homes in D.C. and Palo Alto, she helped found a troop in Palo Alto in 1917 and expanded it to create the Santa Clara Council in 1922, officially opening the Girl Scouts to the western states.
The enduring appeal of the Girl Scouts is due in large part to the organization's flexibility and willingness to remain relevant with the times, said Palo Alto resident Marion Mandell, who joined the Girl Scouts in New Jersey in 1939.
"The Girl Scouts have (always) been in the forefront of modern events," she said.
Mandell, 82, still calls herself a Girl Scout. She joined the Palo Alto service group in 1958.
Mandell said the most attractive parts of scouting for her were being of service to others and the fun of girls doing activities together. She continued on as an assistant leader and in college became a camp counselor. To this day, she is still involved and annually organizes the international father-daughter dance events, including one planned for this weekend, she said.
Girl Scout cookies now cost $4 a box; when Mandell was a girl, she sold them for 25 cents, she said.
While there have always been outdoor- and community-service skills, when computers came along, the Girl Scouts promptly offered a computer badge, she said. Early on they had badges related to the environment and ecology.
Palo Alto Girl Scouts can get badges in areas related to aerospace and architecture and even media savvy. They have one of the most successful robotics teams. They formed the first all-girls local robotics team about eight years ago in conjunction with NASA, which now encompasses the entire Bay Area, George said.
Karen Smestad said she also remains a Scout after many decades. Although her children are grown, she continues to take part in the programs, teaching the next generation of young girls. Scouting offers girls equal-opportunity experiences to become leaders and develop confidence and connections to their communities, she said.
"Yesterday I was teaching them how to build a fire," she said Wednesday.
"To have someone who just learned to strike a match and watch the fire start; to learn a program within Scouting and take it to fruition to an award; and to build something to give to the community" -- these are the experiences that keep her returning, she said.
In addition to having the first service in the West, Palo Alto also has the nation's oldest Girl Scout house that's been in continuous use, at Rinconada Park. It was dedicated in 1926.