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Girls grow thanks to these dedicated adults

MEMBERS OF BRISTOL’S Girl Scout Troop 51876 engage in a variety of fun, empowering and community-minded activities each year. Like all troops, they are led by volunteers who provide lots of time and effort to make the Scouting experience enriching. Shown in the front row, from left are these girls’ three great volunteer leaders: Ursula Olender, Nikki Grassano and Rachel Connor. Photo by Jon Olender

BRISTOL — You could almost say Ursula Olender was born a Girl Scout.

Olender, now 53, became a Brownie Scout as a second-grader, but had aspired to join the organization even before then.

She steadily ascended the ranks during her childhood in Indianapolis. And when she “aged out” as a Girl Scout, she knew she wasn’t done.

Olender is currently a leader of Girl Scout Troop 51876, which now serves 21 girls in the Bristol area.

“I had a phenomenal experience,” she said of Girl Scouts, which taught her not only about collaboration, self-sufficiency, camaraderie and community service — but also about having fun.

“As someone who grew up in a single-parent family, I was surrounded by wonderful mentors,” she added. “My senior year in high school, my Girl Scout troop traveled to Europe, and kids from my neighborhood didn’t do things like that. It changed my whole world view and what I could do.”

And Olender has done well. She currently serves as director of career advising & employer relations at Middlebury College, the latest stop on a career path that has included leadership positions at Amherst College, Colgate University and Dartmouth College.

Even as her professional career flourished; Olender continued to stay connected with Girl Scouts. She married, and reasoned, “Most of the people who were involved (in Girl Scouts) as volunteers were parents. So I thought, ‘Well, eventually we’ll have kids and I’ll volunteer in Girl Scouts.’”

Not everything goes according to script. While having children of her own wasn’t in the cards, Olender saw an opportunity to introduce some young girls to Scouting around 23 years ago while she was residing in Barre.

“There were a couple of neighbor girls who wanted to be Girl Scouts,” she recalled. “They registered, but didn’t get placed in a troop, because there weren’t enough volunteers.”

The girls had a similar background to her own. Olender, knowing how life changing Scouting was for her, decided to take the girls under her wing. She created a mini troop, leading them through many different Scouting activities, including field trips, exploring the outdoors, and community service projects.

Olender has remained engaged as a volunteer Girl Scout leader — wherever her professional odyssey has led — ever since that Barre experience.

She moved to Addison County in 2016 and promptly co-established Troop 51876 in Bristol. The “senior” Girl Scouts in Troop 51876 are now sixth-graders and have been together since kindergarten. The K-6 troop draws from throughout the 5-Town area and beyond.

“Anyone who wants to be a part of our group, we are happy to welcome them,” Olender said proudly.

Rachel Connor, Nikki Grassano and Jen Courtemanche are also part of the leadership team.

“Girl Scouts is very thoughtful and intentional about making sure there are enough adults around and that girls are in a safe, supportive environment, where they can take risks and have a lot of fun — but we take their safety very, very seriously.”

Consequently, the youngest girls (Daisy and Brownie Scouts) and the older members (grades 4-6) meet separately for age-appropriate activities. But they all get together on some occasions for fun group activities.

You might have noticed Troop 51876 members out and about earlier this year selling boxes of guilty pleasures, aka Girl Scout cookies. Troops receive a cut of the cookie revenues to fund Scouting activities.

Businesses looking for salespeople might want to take out an early flyer on this year’s contingent of Bristol-area Girl Scouts. Troop 51876 sold more than 5,000 boxes of cookies this year, with one member singlehandedly selling around 1,000, according to Olender.

“It creates a lot of opportunities for girls,” she said of the cookie sale proceeds. “We just took a trip up to Jay Peak.”

Her work for Girl Scouts doesn’t end with Troop 51876. Olender also serves as community accounting coordinator for all the local troops, through which she helps manage their banking activities. She routinely leads day camps during the summer. This summer, she’ll be chaperoning a national Girl Scouts contingent to Europe.

What brings her the most joy through Girl Scouts?

“The whole community aspect of it,” she replied, noting the delight in meeting not only the girls, but their parents, too.

“I don’t have children, which is pretty unusual (for a Girl Scouts volunteer). But I love children and it’s definitely a way to help girls grow and develop into young adults with leadership skills who can envisions themselves leading whatever they want to lead,” Olender said.

She cherishes those moments when a young girl will sit in on a Girl Scouts gathering and then, after it’s done, run up and ask excitedly, “How do I join? I had fun!”

Anyone interested in joining or volunteering with Troop 51876 should email [email protected].

According to the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains, other active volunteer leaders in the area include Claire Officer, who leads Troop 58187 in Orwell with nine Girl Scouts in grades kindergarten through sixth grade;  Rebecca Otey, leader of Troop 52030 in Lincoln; and Rebecca Kerr, who leads the K-6 Troop 52032 in Shoreham.

FERRISBURGH VOLUNTEER

Christine Gingras, like Olender, has had a long association with Girl Scouts. She joined as a Daisy Scout during the late 1980s (as a kindergartner) and is the proud holder of a lifetime membership. She is a recipient of the organization’s Gold Award — the highest accolade a Girl Scout can receive. Gingras earned the honor while a senior in high school for her work installing a reading room in a homeless shelter in a community in Central Pennsylvania, where she was residing at the time.

Fast forward to 2023. Gingras remains a Scouting enthusiast and a leader of Troop 60253 in Ferrisburgh.

Now an adult with her own family, Gingras hopes she can connect the next generation of young women with the same kinds of experiences she enjoyed as a Girl Scout.

“I had the opportunity to canoe the Canadian wilderness in an all-girl crew, led by two young female guides,” she said. “That trip and subsequent summers working with amazing women were profoundly empowering. Girls Scouts creates a unique space for girls to recognize their strength, their sense of belonging and their potential.”

When Christine’s daughter Addy reached kindergarten, she decided it was time to introduce her to Girl Scouts. And the timing was right, because Girls Scout leadership was looking to establish a troop in the Vergennes area. Thus, Troop 60253 was born. 

“I feel very honored; I hope to be able to give these (eight) girls the same experiences I received when I was a Girl Scout,” Gingras said.

She believes the girls value the opportunity to gather for female bonding.

“There aren’t a lot of other places in their life where there’s an all-girl group, where girls are running the show,” she said. “They’re learning the leadership skills and making things happen.”

Gingras enjoys seeing her charges have fun, but also work together on joint projects — like going on hikes, earning merit badges and selling Girl Scout cookies. She’d like to see the troop pitch in on Green up Day and other community service endeavors.

“I was able to help facilitate those entrepreneurial skills,” she said. 

Each passing year sees some of older members of Troop 60253 graduate to more senior Girl Scout groups. Rather than be sad, Gingras is excited to see members continue to grow with Girl Scouts, developing a stronger bond that could see them transition to mentors and troop co-leaders, as she did.

“The girls are ready and excited to do anything we take them to do,” Gingras said. “It comes down to volunteers stepping up and making these opportunities happen.”

Anyone interested in joining or volunteering with Troop 60253 should email [email protected].

Also, visit girlscoutsgwm.org to learn more.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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