April 30, 2007
By PENELOPE OVERTON, Courant Staff Writer
Connecticut will become a leader in the national campaign to breathe new life into the Girl Scouts of America this week as a new chief executive officer takes over statewide operations just in time to steer the venerable, 97-year-old institution through a complicated transformation of both its infrastructure and its image.
Jennifer Smith Turner, 40, a veteran of corporate, nonprofit and government circles in Connecticut, will assume her new post Tuesday. She will have only five months to prepare before Connecticut consolidates the five regional Girl Scout councils, each with its own programs, administration, donors and identity, into one statewide council.
The new Girl Scouts of Connecticut will then be the largest girls' organization in the state, representing 55,000 girls ranging in age from 5 to 17.
In a recent interview, Smith Turner said she believes the merger will improve the Girl Scout experience for participants and adult volunteers in a variety of ways, and predicted the consolidated membership numbers would give the Girl Scouts of Connecticut enough political and social clout to advocate on behalf of all girls.
"We want to be a voice for all Connecticut girls, whether they are a Girl Scout or not," Smith Turner said. "After the merger, we'll represent girls in every single city and town, or one out of every five girls. That is more than anybody else can say. That gives us a real opportunity, maybe even a responsibility, to speak as one. If we do that, we will be heard."
Smith Turner has spent years developing her voice. She has served as a deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development and as assistant city manager of Hartford, where she still lives. She worked 20 years at Travelers and Aetna, and she is president of the board of Hartford Stage Company and a University of Hartford regent.
Most recently, the Boston native has been honing her artistic voice. Her second book of poems, "Lost and Found, Rhyming Verse Honoring African American Heroes," was published in December. Smith Turner is also writing her first novel and a memoir about her mother, whose death prompted her to launch her writing career.
She must still learn the language of scouting, however. Smith Turner was never a Girl Scout, but instead joined a similar organization, Pioneer Girls, through her church. She plans to earn at least one Girl Scout badge before October, when Girl Scouts of Connecticut is officially born and Smith Turner assumes the mantle of girl advocate at-large.
But before Girl Scouts of Connecticut can speak on behalf of all girls, it must figure out how to speak as one organization.
This challenge is not unique to Connecticut. Girl Scouts of America plans to consolidate 312 councils into 109 high-performance councils over the next two years as a way to streamline its operations and to make it easier to implement policy changes that will bolster sagging membership, especially among older girls and minorities.
Connecticut is one of 10 regions in the country that volunteered to be an "early adopter" of consolidation. In the past, Connecticut chapters have had success when testing new policies and programs aimed at growing, diversifying and retaining membership. Leaders from the five Connecticut councils have been talking about a possible merger for years.
"We were anxious to be one of the first," said Lynne Raymond, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Housatonic Council, which serves about 5,000 girls and 1,900 adult volunteers out of its Bridgeport headquarters. "There are tremendous advantages to joining forces, and we didn't want to just sit back and watch the organization change without getting involved right at the start."
A merged council can pool its resources and offer a wider variety of programs to members of all ages in all parts of the state, said Raymond, who serves on the councils-wide realignment committee. That will help recruit new members and keep older girls, especially middle-schoolers, the age group most likely to drop out of scouting, she said.
In the past, it might have been difficult for a girl in one council to know about, much less participate in, a program happening in a separate Connecticut council, or to take advantage of all of the 3,100 acres of open space and campgrounds owned by the five councils of Connecticut, Raymond said. A united council will open all programs and camps to all girls.
Raymond said the consolidation will cut administrative costs without requiring any staff layoffs. Smith Turner said the merger probably will grow membership to the point that the Girl Scouts eventually will have to add staff. Both believe a merger will boost fundraising, making it easier to solicit donors who want their dollars to help all girls.
Volunteers will also benefit under consolidation, Raymond said. They will be able to access training offered anywhere in the state, collaborate with a greater number of colleagues and have access to a wider variety of classes than what is being offered in their council now, especially volunteers who need training in languages other than English.
Pooled resources means that Girl Scouts of Connecticut will be able to offer programs and volunteers in several languages, which is something that Catherine Flynn, a troop leader of 25 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in Torrington's Forbes School, says she needs. She needs help translating paperwork and fielding recruitment questions from Latino families.
"In the past, we haven't had the diversity, but now we've got it and I need help," she said. "There's an older boy I call on to help me when he can, but he's not always around, and I know there have been times I lost someone because I couldn't make them feel welcome, answer a question or return a call."
Some in the organization don't want to consolidate. They worry that their "family" is turning into a cookie-cutter corporation, complete with layoffs of beloved staffers and the sale of cherished camps. Some worry that the dollars they raise will not be spent in ways benefiting local girls, or that they will spend more time driving to far-flung Girl Scout events than at them.
Smith Turner and members of the realignment committee say they will try to keep the best parts of each council alive during the merger, but realize they probably won't be able to satisfy everyone. There may be some extra driving, but in return there will be a wider range of program and training opportunities. Money will definitely flow, but in the end, everyone benefits.
"Being a successful leader in today's world means knowing how to adapt to change," said 15-year-old Saba Shahid, who joined a Naugatuck Girl Scouts troop eight years ago. "I learned that from Girl Scouts. That is why I know the consolidation is not going to hurt Girl Scouts. We teach people how to lead, be role models and survive, not be scared."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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