Girl Scouting: Gateway to Shared Cultures
Essay by Jane Bleam
In 1964 I was selected to represent Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey at a World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) conference of the Western Hemisphere at Our Cabana in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The purpose for the Conference was to learn about the living conditions, the culture of the Hispanic peoples, and to promote international relationships.
To reach Cuernavaca I flew into Mexico City and spent that night in a hotel. The next day I traveled via bus to our Cabana in Cuernavaca. Upon arrival I met Miss Laura, who was manager for Our Cabana. She informed me the World Committee had chosen me to be the leader of a patrol called the Tulipanes.
We must have discussed the issue of me being a patrol leader for twenty minutes, because I did not want to be the leader. Finally, we reached an agreement that I would be leader until all the patrol members arrived and they would choose their leader. Much to my surprise the girls elected me! My patrol consisted of girls from Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Canada, and Brazil.
Our Cabana was one of four Centers of WAGGGS. It was opened in July 1957 as a Centennial Memorial for Lord Baden-Powell. Our Cabana housed 90 Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. It is the largest of the centers. Since it opened, more than 70,000 Girls have visited it. The other three centers are Sangam in India, Pax Lodge in England and Our Chalet in Switzerland. All the centers are staffed by people from around the world and draw from their local cultures.
In 1910 the Girl Guides were formed by Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes Baden-Powell. He married Olave Baden-Powell in 1912. Olave took over the development of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. When the movement spread, independent Guiding associations were developed, but there still was a need for an International Council. The Baden-Powells were asked to set up a formal association for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. In 1928 the WAGGGS was established at an International Conference in Parad, Hungary. There are 145 countries in the Guiding and Scouting organization. Its headquarters is in London, England.
WAGGGS is divided into 5 regions. The regions are Europe, Arabia, Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Each region has a person in charge. The region representatives meet every three years to discuss and vote on policy. Each WAGGGS member organization takes into account its culture and the needs of the young people they serve, and choose how to best promote their scouting goals and training in life skills.
A personal milestone at this 1964 conference was meeting Lady Baden-Powell, who was the wife of the scouting movement’s founder. I always enjoy talking to older people because they have lived during a different of time than I. She told us that people would touch her husband’s jacket because of their enthusiasm for scouting. This reminded me of the enthusiasm which people had in Biblical times when they touched Jesus’s clothing. She told us to reach America they would sail from Southampton, England, to the West Indies and then to Savannah, Georgia.
It was in Savannah that Juliette Gordan Low gathered 18 girls from her hometown and organized the first Girl Scout troop on March 12, 1912. Juliette had traveled abroad where she learned that the Scouting organization would prepare the girls to make their world a better place. The mission of Scouting is to build courage, confidence, and character. Juliette Lowe’s vision was to have girls discover their strength, passions, and talents.
There were many more highlights of the conference. We had the opportunity to meet Irish Feriss, who was then the General Secretary of WAGGGS.
Among the many distinguished guests at the conference was Janet Talbot, who wrote the songbook for the Girl Scouts visited us. One night each patrol was told to select a song from her songbook and present it to the group. My group selected to read a song simultaneously in Spanish and English. The Spanish speaking girls wanted to add a verse. We all agreed to do it.
We began speaking each in our own language. The English speaking girls continued as agreed. However, the Spanish speaking girls were so excited that they forgot to add the verse. The Tulipanes were very disappointed with their performance. At the end of the evening each patrol went back to their respective dorm.
As the leader of the Tulipanes I said “We are a great group and we should forget what happened tonight, but go forth, loving one another.”
We were to bring a costume of our native area. One of my Old Mennonite students loaned me her grandmother’s long black dress, bonnet and shawl. The Girl Guides and Girl Scouts could not believe that people dressed like this in my country! I informed them that not all the people in my nation dress in this type of clothing, but there is one religious group dress this way. Other girls dressed in their native costumes, too.
For the visiting Girl Guides and Girl Scouts the Center organized trips to various areas in Mexico. One day we traveled to Mexico City where we visited one of the Mexican sponsors of the Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. As we entered her elegant home, she directed us to her courtyard in the back of her house. The courtyard was filled with gorgeous flowers and a manicured lawn. The garden was a surprise because of the location of her home in Mexico City. She had a hairless dog which was a rare breed.
From her home we were taken to see the Ballet Folklorica. The history of Mexico was portrayed via dance. Their presentation was very memorable. The costumes they wore were as beautiful as was their choreography.
Another day we traveled to a small village where the people were trying to enhance their diet intake of protein. Since rabbits reproduce rapidly, they raised and ate the rabbits to acquire their protein. In the same village a group would come to give their children immunizations.
One afternoon we visited an orphanage. The Girl Guides and Girl Scouts worked with children of various age groups. A Girl Guide and I worked with toddlers. My friend was more fluent in Spanish than I. I simply asked her how do say, “Where is the bathroom?” in Spanish. Before she could answer me, one toddler immediately responded. We both laughed because we did not know the children were listening and that they understood English. What a surprise!
The next day we visited Cuernavaca. The people were selling fruit and vegetables. They had their produce upon wooden boxes because raw sewage was running down the street. This was not appealing and we were instructed not to buy their produce. We did learn how to bargain for hand made items they were selling. To bargain we would ask, “How much does this cost?” If the figure seemed too high we would walk away shaking our heads. After our action the seller would drop the cost, hoping we would buy their item. Bargaining is a way of life for the Spanish people.
Laura Jane Michie-Bleam is a retired Professor Emerita of Nursing at Montgomery County College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, who served the college for thirty-two years. She traveled extensively, and was often required to write or speak to groups about her travels. Her interest in children led her to take writing courses from the Institute of Children’s Literature.