Scout cookie sales not all sweet, light

Fund-raiser: Today's girls encounter modern problems in what has become a multimillion- dollar undertaking.

March 07, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

It would be nice to imagine that such a hallowed American tradition as the Girl Scouts' annual cookie sale hasn't had to change much since the girls began hawking their treats in wax-paper bags 80 years ago.

But it has.

The peddling of Thin Mints, Samoas and Do-si-dos has managed to endure over the years, but these days the Girl Scouts face the same pressures as other multimillion-dollar enterprises. States attempt to tax the sales, customers write bad checks, the girls worry about their own safety, consumers fret about calories - and some people even steal the cookie cash.

Yes, volunteers and Scout moms occasionally keep or mishandle cookie money amounting to tens of thousands of dollars missing each year in Maryland alone. It's part of the cost of conducting a still-growing business with revenues as high as $10 million in the state.

"Cookie debt" is what Scout managers call proceeds not finding their way back to the councils. The Washington-area council that oversees the 3,896 troops of the D.C. area, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and all of Southern Maryland, recorded about $30,000 in such debt last year - less than 1 percent of gross sales, but amounting nonetheless to 10,000 boxes of cookies.

The council, whose cookie sale is going on now, is working with a debt-collection agency to try to recover the cash.

The council's Baltimore counterpart, the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, is carrying a loss of about $20,000, also less than 1 percent of 2002 sales.

Missing receipts is but one of the harsh realities the girls face functioning in an environment radically different from the one in which they first began hawking sugar cookies in the 1920s.

"My husband was astounded someone would dare write a bad check to the Girl Scouts, but they do," says Charlene Meidlinger, assistant executive director of the Washington council.

To track the sale's evolution is to see the ways America has changed - and remained the same - since the sales began.

What began as a series of small-time, educational fund-raisers now enlists one of the nation's largest unpaid sales forces. Each of 316 regional councils conducts its own sales, which help fund such things as campsites, trips and much of a bureaucracy that includes many regional directors making more than $100,000 a year.

Through it all, the organization of about 2.8 million girls and 942,000 adults has stuck to its conviction that selling cookies teaches girls ages 5-17 about self-esteem, goal-setting, teamwork and money management.

"This is like the first independent thing that we do," said Baltimore Girl Scout Jessica Gaylord, 13. "You're going out in the world."

But these days, that can be risky. Door-to-door cookie selling is like trick-or-treating - a time-honored American institution with modern-day pitfalls.

Last fall, the Washington-area sniper shootings taught hundreds of Baltimore-area Girl Scouts, then in the midst of their annual cookie drive, a sobering lesson about the dangers of their world. Their governing council suspended plans for outdoor booth sales and ordered troops to remove booth locations from the Internet.

As the crisis unfolded, Gaylord and the other 41 girls of Troop 1862 huddled for their weekly meetings in the basement of a Hunting Ridge church.

"We talked about the very real fears they were facing and about being more attentive to their surroundings," said troop leader Wanda Onafuwa, a Baltimore bank manager. "And, of course, we prayed for the victims."

The girls already knew better than to reveal information about themselves to customers, or enter a home or apartment when selling.

The Scouts' New York-based national headquarters directs girls to use the buddy system, and to go door-to-door only during daylight hours unless accompanied by an adult.

But even when the snipers were at large, customers seemed to treat the Girl Scouts at their doors as old friends. It is in large part that warm association that has enabled the cookie sales to steadily grow.

The Washington-based council nets about $7 million a year from cookies, amounting to 73 percent of its budget. This year's sale, which began Jan. 3 and ends March 29, has a goal of selling 4.25 million boxes, a little more than last year.

The Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, covering Baltimore and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard, sold about 1.8 million boxes during its drive, which ran from mid-September into December. About 69 percent of its $4 million budget comes from the cookie drives.

"It literally runs the operation," Meidlinger says. "It turns on the lights, it pays a percentage of my salary, but more important, it allows us to serve the girls in our communities and have seven campsites."

Critics say the organization uses the girls to produce revenue that should come more appropriately from other sources.

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