American Heritage Girls experiencing rapid growth
For many years, American Heritage Girls had considered themselves a "best-kept secret," according to executive director and founder Patti Garibay.
But recently, Garibay said, the organization has found itself on an exciting trajectory. In the past year, American Heritage Girls experienced a 40 percent growth, and it's anticipating a 100 percent growth for next year. The organization currently has approximately 20,000 members. It had 100 when it started in 1995.
And what's the fastest-growing faith denomination within the organization? The Catholic Church, according to Garibay, who was raised Catholic and now attends a non-denominational Christian church.
"Some dioceses are encouraging participation. We're excited to see what God brings to us," she said.
Bishop Thomas Doran of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., for example, issued a letter in 2011 granting permission to form troops in that diocese and appointed a diocesan chaplain. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, parishes have permission to form American Heritage Girls troops as well as Girl Scout troops. At least three other archdiocesan parishes are considering launching American Heritage Girls troops in the fall.
The archdiocese also cites two other similar organizations, Little Flowers Girls' Club and Catholic Daughters of the Americas, as options for girls.
One of the biggest milestones for American Heritage Girls occurred in 2009, when it signed a Memorandum of Mutual Support with the Boy Scouts of America. The partnership has allowed the two organizations to work cooperatively on service projects, membership growth and programming initiatives.
"What it says is basically, when in the right environments, meaning a church or school says, 'I would like scouting, and I would like it to be faith-based,' then Boy Scouts will help to form AHG units and AHG will help to form Boy Scout and Cub Scout units, because we are partners," explained Garibay. That also means troops must have a connection to a faith-based entity, such as a school or a church.
It's that faith-based aspect to scouting that Garibay wanted so much that she decided to leave her role as a Girl Scout leader and delegate after 13 years of service. It started in 1993, when she attended a Girl Scouts national convention in Minnesota, where she said a proposal was made to offer more flexibility for spiritual beliefs in the Girl Scout promise.
"It also allowed for the girls with no beliefs to leave the word God out," she said. While the Girl Scouts has responded to criticisms, stating that it has not removed God from the promise, some of the ideology behind the initial proposal remains.
"Atheists can start troops and be leaders," for example, said Garibay.
The decision to join with other families to start American Heritage Girls was a personal choice, Garibay stressed. "I could no longer say this organization (Girl Scouts) ... reflected my values and what I wanted to represent to my children and my community."
There has been recent criticism of the Girl Scouts because of questionable materials and resources, and connections to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGS), for example, which promotes values contrary to Church teaching. Current;y. the Archdiocese of St. Louis permits Girl Scout troops in its parishes and schools.
American Heritage Girls, said Garibay, is "based on Judeo-Christian values that our country was founded upon." That's a big part of the reason for the organization's name.
Looking at the founders of the nation and "how they would consistently go to God in prayer ... and the things they went through ... How could they go on not believing and not having God to go to?" said Garibay. "That's what we really want the girls to do, is to go back to their roots and to realize that God has a plan for their lives."
"I just think of that whole concept of the birth of a nation, the birth of a girl, (and) the growth and formation of a girl -- their faith is so integral to that. To me scouting without faith is really like having milk without chocolate."
"God has trusted us with His children and has 'loaned' them to us," she said. "Their souls have to be nurtured regularly."
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