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Orlando Sentinel

Giving Girls A Happy Ending

Through Girl Scouts, 8,000 at-risk youths find the power to envision a better future

By Melissa Harris | Sentinel Staff Writer

December 19, 2003
Copyright ©2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE -- It's story time for Girl Scout Troop 1441, and the message is "girl power."

Once upon a time, there was a king who didn't believe his only daughter could rule his nation, Troop Leader Yvette Cruz tells her girls, most of them young Hispanics who only recently immigrated to the United States.

The king arranged his daughter's marriage to the prince of a neighboring kingdom, who wanted to join the two empires together. But Princess Petaluma, who liked to climb trees instead of arrange flowers, recoiled in horror.

"I can be a better king than any son," she shouted.

At that point, Cruz told the girls to write their own "girl-powered" ending.

Some imagined the best outcome: Petaluma gaining the crown and falling in the love with the prince. But others envisioned Petaluma locked in a horrible relationship with an ogre of a husband.

It's those girls, who always think the worst, that Cruz is trying to reach. It's also those kind of endings that she is trying to prevent.

With help from the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign, Cruz is part of a team of outreach workers who make it possible for about 8,000 at-risk girls in three Central Florida counties to become Scouts.

This year's curriculum is called "Girl Power! How To Get It" and encourages Scouts to find role models, feel confident about their appearances, speak up and make smart decisions.

"Building self-esteem wasn't something we talked about 20 years ago," said Ruth Patrick, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Citrus Council. "We were doing it, but we weren't calling it that.

"But it's become what Girl Scouts is about -- feeling good about yourself. These girls need safe, supportive environments to be girls."

During the past decade, outreach troops in a variety of communities have helped shed the perception that scouting is just for rich, white girls. They've also shed the Betty Crocker-in-an-apron image.

Girl Scouts play soccer, help organize their own field trips and choreograph their own hip-hop dance routines.

On this day with Troop 1441, more than half of the 30 members are spread out across the cafeteria floor at Cypress Elementary School. The other half are sitting at tables.

They've been told to draw life-size outlines of themselves on rolls of brown paper and then decorate the inside with words and images that express who they are.

The pictures tell the stories of young girls making the difficult transition between child and teenager.

The troop carries a stuffed teddy bear with them everywhere they go, but they also snicker about boys and talk about how they would just love to get Louis Vuitton purses for Christmas.

But among the circle is a camaraderie, a sense of support that most people wouldn't associate with junior high. Instead of gossiping about one another or putting one another down, they are incredibly supportive.

"Hey, you're not ugly," said Tanishka Rodriguez, 11, as she saw her friend writing "ugly" on the chest of her outline. "I like your hair. I like your face."

Rodriguez's friend erased the comment, sheepishly smiling with embarrassment.

The girls struggle with body image the most. Someone -- either their siblings, parents, friends or the media -- is telling them that they're inadequate.

At Girl Scouts, troop leaders try to block those thoughts out. They also pay close attention to Maria Castro, 10, who recently moved here from Puerto Rico and doesn't speak English very well.

A paid troop leader, one perk of being in an outreach group, will help translate, but more often than other troop members translate for their friends.

And they go on field trips -- the most recently to the Georgia birthplace of the Girl Scout movement -- where they camped overnight and told each other spooky stories in their cabin. For some, it was a first vacation without their parents.

Xiomara Parrilla, 10, fashions herself a "drama queen." She even drew it on her outline.

Dressed in a flowing wig of Cinderella-like hair, the girl talked about Princess Petaluma's fate, which she wrote with her best friend Daniela Navarro.

"I told you I could succeed," Petaluma told the king in Parrilla's story. "I just needed time."

"Fine you will rule," the king replied.

"Yes, yes, yes!" she exclaimed.

After six years Petaluma married the prince her father had chosen.

"Because she wanted to obey her father," Parrilla wrote. "So she ruled as a queen, and they both lived happily ever after."

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