Christ-centered scouting program builds 'women of integrity'

Sid Hastings
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Hovered around several tables in the cafeteria of St. Joseph School in Cottleville, more than a dozen fourth-grade girls were carefully squeezing thick lines of white icing along pieces of foam board. Giggles erupted as one snuck a finger's taste of icing. Another managed to lace some in her hair as she pushed it back to work on her design.

The girls were receiving a lesson in the fine art of cake decorating from professional decorator and baker Melanie Coyne, a woman from the neighborhood. As members of American Heritage Girls, they were working toward earning a badge in cake decorating, one of more than 240 badges that the organization offers.

This year, St. Joseph became the first parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to host an American Heritage Girls troop. Founded in 1995 by a group of parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, who were seeking a wholesome program for their daughters, American Heritage Girls provides a faith-based, Christ-centered scouting program for girls ages 5-18. Its mission is "building women of integrity through service to God, family, community and country."

Like other scouting groups, girls are afforded opportunities for leadership and character development, but executive director Patti Garibay, who helped found the organization, said that American Heritage Girls places a priority on weaving faith into those experiences, leaving them with another way in which they can live and grow in their faith in their everyday lives.

"Here they're going to be well-armed not only understanding what their faith is all about, but also how to put legs on that faith and how to talk about that to other people," Garibay said last week in a phone interview from Cincinnati. "It's a great way really to teach girls that their faith shouldn't just be something that's put on the shelf until Sunday -- it should be lifelong, all the time, and woven throughout your life and your experiences," said Garibay.

Culture warriors

Last weekend, Troop MO1776 at St. Joseph celebrated its first year of existence with an awards ceremony, tree planting and reception. The troop has nearly two dozen members, primarily fourth-graders who are in the rank of Explorer. The troop also has three Pioneers, seventh- and eighth-graders; a kindergarten-age Pathfinder; and a first-grade Tenderheart. Activities are tailored to best fit with the experiences of each age group represented.

Reflecting on their first year in existence, troop leaders and parents Amy Gibson and Mary Liddy described their effort as the result of being "culture warriors." In a way, they said, the troop was born out of a desire to return to the faith-based values that have so easily been lost in a secularized culture.

"We have observed the culture around us declining, the decrease in the value of family and morals," said Liddy. "It's an attack on faith. And very much so, since we've started (the troop) we've seen an attack on faith."

When the two of them were researching American Heritage Girls, Gibson said that what struck her the most was the organization's oath, which the girls recite at every meeting:

"I promise to love God, cherish my family, honor my country and serve in my community."

"Right there -- it's telling us what's the most important: God, then family, then community," said Gibson.

Liddy gets excited when she reads the welcome message from executive director Patti Garibay, printed in the front of each American Heritage Girls handbook: "I hope that you find your time in AHG to be filled with adventure and fun. The AHG program will help you learn many things about yourself and about God's purpose for your life." Liddy placed an emphasis on the last part of that statement.

"Mary was the first one who told me, 'You've got to look online at this group,'" said Gibson. "I remember reading that and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, that's so nice.'"

Tailor made

While American Heritage Girls is Christian-based, it is nondenominational. Each troop is allowed to tailor its activities to their specific faith values, according to Garibay. The St. Joseph troop, for example, has participated in Catholic faith-building programs offered through the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Scouting.

Last year, the girls worked on their Blessed Pope John Paul II award, which was developed in the archdiocese in 2007 as a way to help scouts learn more about the saints and martyrs and John Paul II's life and legacy.

The troop hosted a visit from the Greater St. Louis Iris Society. Besides receiving a lesson on growing irises, the girls also learned about the trinitarian symbolism found in the iris, through its three sets of three petals.

"To have that ability to speak about your faith through this context of scouting is absolutely freeing," said Garibay. American Heritage Girls is structured that only churches or other faith-based entities, such as schools or organizations, can own and operate a troop. That is a key part of the organization's charter partner concept, which was adapted through a similar charter concept developed by the Boy Scouts of America.

All charter organizations, adult members and adult leaders also must apply themselves to a statement of faith, which includes living a life of purity -- including reserving sexual activity for marriage between a man and a woman -- service, stewardship and integrity.

The Stars and Stripes Award -- the highest honor an American Heritage Girl can earn in her high school years -- requires a girl to earn a faith-based award for that age group. In the St. Louis Archdiocese, for example, that would be the Spirit Alive faith-building program for eighth-graders and high schoolers. Offered through the Catholic Scouting Office, the award focuses on the Holy Spirit as it is manifested through prayer, Scripture, Vatican II documents and service to others.

Other faith denominations typically tap into their own religious formation programs or can use a nondenominational resource, such as the PRAY (Programs of Religious Activities with Youth) program. In conjunction with that program, individual troop members can then follow up with their home congregation for studies specific to their faith. American Heritage Girls also offers a separate spiritual development badge.

"American Heritage Girls is to be an extension of youth ministry and spiritual formation," said Garibay. "Our goal is that we really want to harness their faith before they go out into the world -- usually go into the secular university setting."

Service and fun

As part of a service requirement, the St. Joseph troop made cards and wrote letters to servicemen and women for a Sept. 11 Day of Service event at O'Fallon City Hall. They also visited a local nursing home to sing Christmas carols and packed food boxes for a local food pantry.

Rachel Deason was hard-pressed when asked about her favorite activities.

"I don't have a favorite -- that's how much I like everything," said the Explorer member. "The biggest part is being with my friends."

Since St. Joseph formed its troop, the girls have earned several badges for topics such as crafts, golf and the American flag. Catherine Barfield, an eighth-grade Pioneer member, earned her her flag badge after learning the symbolism of the parts of the American flag. She also leaned how to properly dispose of a flag.

Fifth-grader and Explorer Rachel Roberts said she enjoyed earning a golf badge after the troop visited a driving range. But more importantly, she said she just simply enjoys spending time with her friends.

"And we learn about our faith together," she said.

American Heritage Girls at a Glance

• There are 20,000 members and 425 troops in 46 states

• The average troop size is 50

• St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville is the first parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to host an American Heritage Girls troop. Troop MO1776 has two Pathfinders (kindergarten/first grade), 14 Explorers (fourth-graders), and three Pioneers (seventh- and eighth-graders). Amy Gibson and Mary Liddy are troop leaders

• There currently are nine troops with 521 members in the St. Louis area

American Heritage Girls Statement of Faith

American Heritage Girls describes itself as a Christ-centered leadership and character development ministry. Its Statement of Faith applies to all American Heritage Girls charter organizations, adult members and adult leaders.

"We believe that there is One Triune God — Father, Jesus Christ His one and only Son, and the Holy Spirit – Creator of the universe and eternally existent. We believe the Holy Scriptures (Old/New Testament) to be the inspired and authoritative Word of God. We believe each person is created in His image for the purpose of communing with and worshipping God. We believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit who enables us to live a Godly life. We believe that each individual is called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love their neighbors as themselves. We believe that each individual is called to live a life of purity, service, stewardship and integrity."

American Heritage Girls also provides further clarity to the following items mentioned in the statement:

Purity – An AHG member is called to live a life of holiness, being pure of heart, mind, word and deed, reserving sexual activity for the sanctity of marriage; marriage being a lifelong commitment before God between a man and a woman.

Service – An AHG member is called to become a responsible member of their community and the world through selfless acts, which contribute to the welfare of others.

Stewardship – An AHG member is called to use their God given time, talents and money wisely.

Integrity – An AHG member is called to live a moral life, demonstrating the inward motivation to do what is right, regardless of the cost 

For more information on the American Heritage Girls, visit ahgonline.org 

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