CUMBERLAND CENTER – Call her the reluctant Girl Scout.
It was Phyllis Kamin’s sister Mimi who was the outdoorsy one in the family and grew up to be an active Scout leader. Kamin, who “didn’t love” hiking, initially joined “because my sister dragged me into it,” she recalled, chuckling.
But once Kamin was part of her local troop on the south side of Chicago, a whole new world opened up to her.
“We were in a big city,” Kamin said at her home last week. “We all lived in apartment buildings surrounded by cement backyards. For us to have a campfire, we had to go to what was called a forest preserve, and probably took a street car there because our parents didn’t own cars.”
Kamin, who will turn 85 in a few weeks, is one of more than 50 million American women who can call themselves former Girl Scouts. The iconic organization – known for its green uniforms, badges awarded for doing good deeds and mastering certain life skills, and its earnest promise to God and country – celebrates its 100th birthday Monday.
That’s a lot of campfires and cookies.
The Girl Scouts’ centennial year will be filled with remembrances and special activities all over the country. On the East Coast, Girl Scouts of all ages have signed up to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. “The Great Girl Scout Hike” launches Monday and ends Oct. 31, on the birthday of Juliette Gordon Low, the woman who founded the organization on March 12, 1912.
The 10 girls in Girl Scout Troop 42 from Cumberland and North Yarmouth will wear vintage Girl Scout uniforms to church today. Last month, as part of a larger project interviewing former Girl Scouts, the troop met with Kamin to hear what it was like to be a Scout during the Great Depression.
Troop leader Michelle Josephson said the girls were struck by how Kamin’s troop embraced diversity in the late 1930s by including a girl who had a disability. The Girl Scouts have always been known for being inclusive, perhaps because their founder was deaf and had some other health problems in her lifetime.
“Phyllis told the girls that it didn’t matter what people looked like or how they acted or what their abilities were, they were really just all girls and they were in Girl Scouts to have fun together,” Josephson said.
Kamin joined the Girl Scouts in 1938 or 1939 – she can’t remember exactly which year – when she was 10 or 11.
Yes, she wore the classic green shirtwaist dress, but there were no sashes or vests back then, so when she earned a new badge, it got sewn onto her sleeve. Instead of a sash, the girls wore colored kerchiefs around their necks.
Kamin’s family and friends were poor, so it took them a while to pay for their uniforms. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, and Kamin remembers her mother washing clothes in the bathtub. Her father was a grocer, and her mother was a housewife who, at one point, made money for the family by selling encyclopedias door to door.
Kamin recalls how difficult it was to sell Girl Scout cookies in those days. There was only one kind — the Trefoils — and they cost just 25 cents a box. There was no expectation that parents would help with sales the way they do today.
“There weren’t many people that could afford to buy cookies, so you were lucky if you sold one box to a family,” Kamin said. “Now I watch my granddaughter, who was selling cookies a couple of years ago, taking orders for six or eight boxes of cookies at $3.50 a box, and it’s like, ‘Wow, what a difference.’ “
Camp-outs took place in a nearby forest preserve or at the beach, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Sleeping bags were a novelty back then, Kamin said, so when they went camping in the preserve, they slept on a wooden platform with a tent roof overhead. They kept warm with blankets.
But some things are timeless: Even on camping trips in the 1930s, the girls toasted marshmallows, roasted hot dogs and told ghost stories around the campfire.
One year, Kamin’s troop went to the Juniper Knoll Girl Scout Camp in Wisconsin for two weeks. Kamin had never been away from home overnight. “That was quite a big adventure,” she said.
They went hiking, swimming and boating, and at night around the campfire, there were “a lot of giggly girls telling stories.”
“I know we got into some mischief one night, and I went running through the woods and fell and cut my hand,” Kamin recalled, “which had me completely devastated, because I was sure I was going to be an artist at that point. I thought, ‘Oh, there goes my career.’ “
Kamin earned her share of Girl Scout badges. Her favorites were the ones related to arts and crafts and first aid. “I think everyone I knew had to wear a sling for a while,” she said.
This year, in celebration of the 100th year of Girl Scouting, all Girl Scouts are being challenged to complete 100 acts of community service. If they complete the task, they’ll earn a special centennial patch that says “100 Deeds Well Done.”
Kamin was a Scout for only two years, then later in life became an assistant leader for one of her daughters’ Brownie troops. But she wonders if her time in the Chicago troop influenced her career choices later in life. She has always been drawn to the helping professions.
“In retrospect,” Kamin said, “when I went to college, I went into occupational therapy, and I was a therapist for 25 years working with handicapped children and in psych.”
Kamin then went into health program management and founded a Maine program called The Women’s Project, an organization designed to help women with addictions get into treatment. The organization is still helping women to this day.
“We provided all the extra services that women need which people tend to overlook and say, ‘Why don’t they go for treatment?’ ” she said. “And it’s because they don’t have child care, transportation, money, housing, all the ancillary services. So I guess I could say there was some outlook I had on helping people do what they needed to do.”
When Kamin talks about her days in Girl Scouts, she often warns that she can’t remember things that happened 75 years ago. But then, out of the blue, she remembered the Girl Scout Promise, and recited it for a visitor:
“I think some of the wording has changed, but from what I remember, it was: ‘On my honor, I will try to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Girl Scout laws.’ “
Not perfect, but pretty darn close.
She also remembered, almost spot on, the first lines of a song that Girl Scouts still sing today: ” ‘Make new friends and keep the old, one is silver and one is gold.’ Or something like that.”
Proving, perhaps, that you can’t take the Girl Scout out of the girl, no matter how many years go by.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: