By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
Villie Appoo took over the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois at a pivotal moment in 2009. Two Girl Scout councils were planning to merge and form a new one that would span 40 counties in Southern Illinois, stretching from East St. Louis to Cairo, from sparsely populated coal and agricultural regions to inner cities struggling with poverty and crime.
Appoo, a native of India, a former social worker and chief operating officer of a community health program, was brought in to lead the transition. A major goal was melding each council’s culture into a cohesive whole and avoid us-versus-them friction. Appoo says communication was of paramount importance.
The council began surveying scouts and leaders regularly to determine their needs and wants. It began a series of quarterly meetings in each of four regions. Appoo and other senior leaders attend the meetings to listen to concerns of volunteers and offer support.
The council also has taken stock of its facilities, which included six camps when Appoo joined it. One camp has been closed and two more will close by next year. Arcturis, a St. Louis architectural firm, developed a master plan for one of the remaining camps, and students from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville’s engineering school are helping by adopting and executing parts of the plan.
When she came to the council, Appoo had been a Girl Guide in India, so she was aware of scouting traditions. Yet she also knew of scouting’s struggles to remain relevant in a fast-changing world. Under her leadership, the council has developed programs designed to spark girls’ interests in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Girls often begin losing interest in science around fifth grade, she said. With programs in robotics, chemistry (explosions) and CSI-type forensics, scouting can help sustain their interest and nurture a belief that they can be successful in technical or scientific careers. The council started with one robotics group six years ago and now has 31 groups throughout the council.
Other programs seek to build self-esteem with programs that help girls deal with bullying or promote a healthy body image. “We don’t all have to look like Barbies,” Appoo noted.
The Girl Scout Cookie program has become a tool for teaching financial literacy. Girls learn to do business plans, marketing and the finances involved in selling cookies. In the last two years, the national office has developed a digital cookie program that allows girls to sell online and use online tools to plan and run their campaigns.
“We make it fun,” Appoo said.
The council also sponsors an in-school scouting program in East St. Louis to help girls there build confidence and leadership skills. Using a grant from United Way and other grants, the council hires neighborhood residents to run the program. Girls who participate have the opportunity to attend summer camp, day camp or other activities.
Similar programs are available in some other Metro East school districts after school. In rural areas, schedules reflect the needs of volunteers and may meet in the evening. Council managers travel to the areas or, if they live in the area, work from home.
With 12,000 scouts and 4,800 adult volunteers, Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois is one of the smaller councils nationwide, yet it has one of the highest retention rates. Appoo says that extensive training, program support and innovative programs help with retention, but like any organization, it’s challenging to keep girls involved in scouting as they become teenagers. For that reason, the council works hard to recruit younger girls and keep them engaged with programs that are fun and that make scouting look “cool” to their peers.
The council encourages girls of all ages to come up with community service projects that benefit their local areas. Older girls can earn Girl Scouting’s highest honors – Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards. Last year, 26 girls in the region earned Gold awards that required at least 80 hours of planning, finding volunteers and carrying out sustainable projects in their communities.
Appoo is committed to changing the vision of what Girl Scouting is. “It’s a leadership organization that helps girls develop their full potential so they can succeed and make this world a better place.”
BBB prepares profiles of BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities as part of its TORCH Awards process. Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois is a winner of the BBB St. Louis TORCH Awards. To sign up for the event, click here.