It was more than a month ago that Denise McDonald walked into a West Baltimore outreach center with a friend who needed help with a drug problem. While talking to a counselor there, she learned about the after-school program for girls. She knew what she had to do next.
"Everywhere I go, when I know there's a group of girls meeting, I come and ask if I can start a Girl Scout troop," said the 31-year-old, who began recruiting Brownies and Girl Scouts for the Central Maryland chapter five years ago. "If they say yes, I go back and start it."
Echo House's director said yes. Ms. McDonald returned.
And Thursday, about two dozen of her newest recruits will raise three fingers, recite the pledge as girls around the world have done since 1912 and receive their Girl Scout pins.
"What is investiture?" Ms. McDonald asked her initiates last week.
A chorus of young voices rang out behind hers: "Accepting the Girl Scout promise and Girl Scout law and living by it."
Around a conference table they sat, girls in plaid parochial school skirts or jeans and T-shirts. They wore barrettes and bows in their hair, saddle shoes or turquoise high-topped Keds on their feet. One of the tiniest still sucked her thumb.
But beneath that wide-eyed innocence was a knowledge gleaned from the rough and tumble of West Baltimore's streets.
Their meeting room has bars on the windows. Up the block, street-weary men waited for a soup kitchen to open. Trash clogged the alleys next door.
"Two boys in my class sell drugs," said a 12-year-old in a Catholic school uniform. "As far as the drugs and the alcohol, the behavior is no different" than in public schools.
"I don't walk home alone," said a 10-year-old, shaking her head. "My mama tells us different ways to walk to school because we keep going past the alcoholics on the corner."
The discussion has shifted from what the girls can do when they grow up -- fly planes, drive a truck, run a television station -- to why they should say no to drugs.
Before the hour was up, the girls, ages 5 to 14, and Ms. McDonald had touched on the ills of marijuana and pills, alcohol and cocaine, as have Scouts and leaders from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Gainesville, Fla.
The subject is among the contemporary issues -- from developing the math and science skills of girls to attacking the problem of illiteracy -- that have been as widely discussed among Girl Scouts in the past decade as fidelity to God and country.
Brandy Walker knows what awaits her as one of the 3,700-plus Girl Scouts in Baltimore.
"You can go on trips that you've never been on, horseback riding, sleeping over at Mondawmin Mall," said the 9-year-old, referring to a Scout slumber party.
For Consuela Lowery, Scouting means not having to spend time on the streets.
"They teach you how to have fun in a positive way," said the 12-year-old. "It gives you the experience to be with other girls and share things with them."
The Girl Scouts of Central Maryland will capitalize on that camaraderie and spirit today when it sponsors a reunion to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the organization.
While the ideals that Girl Scouting fosters remain the same, the challenges facing the organization reflect society's changing mores, cultures and conflicts.
In Seattle, for example, an effort was launched to make voluntary the part of the Scout pledge that invokes God. Teen-age Scouts in three Pennsylvania counties are learning about the dangers of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the benefits of peer counseling. In Michigan, a Scout's mother, concerned about her daughter's future, arranged a seminar on careers in architecture and engineering.
A Girl Scouts information hot line in Costa Mesa, Calif., answers questions in Spanish and Vietnamese. And, in the nation's capital, a troop planted trees in its neighborhood.
As many as 24,500 young girls -- more than the population of Ellicott City -- are Scouts in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties.
Last year, the Central Maryland chapter grew from the 12th largest in the nation to the eighth. The percentage of minority Girl Scouts in the council has jumped to 27 percent, according to figures provided by the chapter.
Girl Scouts in the inner city face different challenges than their suburban sisters.
A survey of Girl Scouts conducted by the national group found that "for urban girls, and particularly urban girls of color, [Scouting] was reported as being more important in the development of their values than the other girls," said Rae Lipscomb, of the Central Maryland council.
In crime-ridden neighborhoods like the one surrounding Echo House, where adults go for treatment of substance abuse and social services, Ms. Lipscomb says Scouts and Scout leaders have to believe that "things can be different."
"It's recapturing one mind, one life at a time," she added.