I'm a Brownie leader with a thriving unit - we have around 20 girls (could take a few more) and we have three qualified leaders (meaning we have all done our Girlguiding Adult Leadership Qualification, or LQ for short), a parent helper who comes weekly and a member of The Senior Section (TSS) who is a Young Leader and another teenager who is doing DofE. We are part of a thriving district, all our units (one Rainbow, four Brownies, one Guide) are full or nearly full, we have waiting lists (mainly of girls not yet old enough to join that section) and we are incredibly active, doing a wide range of activities.
Girlguiding has been running a #GrowingGuiding campaign, to help grow Guiding (clue is in the name!). Some areas have massive waiting lists and need more adult leaders to help existing units as well as to open new ones, some areas have smaller units and need more girls, other areas are thinking about the future, and what will happen in say five or ten years when lots of their leaders retire. Other units are in areas dominated by students, so there is a quick turn over of leaders and often uncertainty about who will be running the unit in the next academic year.
I've always been passionate about recruiting new leaders - some of my closest friends I got involved in Guiding by inviting them to a Brownie meeting (just so they could see what I was always talking about) and then they just kept coming back! Or I'd rope them in by saying I really needed another adult to accompany us on a theatre trip, free ticket, oh look the girls think you're great, they're inviting you to be an owl, how can you resist them?
To be a leader, you need to be aged 18 or over, for obvious reasons. I know so many units across the country who need more adult leaders, there are regular pleas on different Facebook groups for an adult to help out at xyz unit or it will close next term, that sort of thing.
What is important to realise (and I am not saying these units don't realise this) is that adults were once teenagers - and if we can encourage leadership qualities from a younger age, we have a pool of competent young women who will one day turn that magic age of 18.
When I was a Guide I helped out at two local Brownie units - one a few minutes' walk from my house, another a bit further away cycling. The former was my old unit, the latter was run by my Guide leader. So three nights a week, I did Guiding, two evenings at Brownies and another at Guides. I loved helping at Brownies, the girls really liked me, I led games with them, I helped out with crafts and activities, I was a link to the Guide unit. I went on unit holidays with them and had a great time.
When I was about 13, my old Brownie unit (so not the one run by my Guide leader) asked me to stop attending. They had another Guide interested in volunteering, and there wasn't room for us both. So they were asking me to stop so she could have a go.
I was quite upset by this. Whilst I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, I was sad that the leaders thought there wasn't room for us both - it was a full unit with around 20 girls, or even if they hadn't wanted two teenagers there each week, maybe we could have alternated weeks. I told my mum (who is involved in local Guiding) as well as other Guiding people, and all were appalled by how I was treated - you just don't ask a volunteer to stop attending, if they haven't done anything wrong.
Anyway, I stopped going as requested (after that week, I didn't exactly want to go back anyway) and continued with the other unit, where I helped throughout my GCSEs and A levels, right up until I left to go on my gap year and to university. I went on a unit holiday with them which finished the day before my 18th birthday and they even threw a surprise birthday party for me, which was lovely (and a genuine surprise, which is quite impressive given how bad more Brownies are at keeping secrets!). I like to think I made a significant contribution to the success of that Brownie unit. I was keen, enthusiastic, competent and I genuinely loved helping.
In contrast, the new Guide at the other Brownie unit only helped for a term or so (co-incidentally, the minimum amount of time needed to earn the service badge which was around at that time, how very cynical of me) and the unit closed a few years later due to lack of leaders.
As an organisation, we need to be planning for the future...and that means looking at Guides and members of TSS as they are the leaders of tomorrow. One of the units in my district had three teenagers who wanted to volunteer - the leader in charge has nurtured them for a number of years, the girls are all turning 18 this academic year and so that unit will go from two leaders and three young leaders to five fully-qualified leaders. Isn't that marvellous?
Okay, so these girls are likely to move away in the next few years, as is happening with 18 year olds across the country as they move to college, university, start careers. But they will be going on their way fully qualified and as such will be a great asset to whichever unit they volunteer with.
Developing leadership skills is so important and young volunteers can develop other skills as well, in 'real' situations. Take Brownies this week - I was in the kitchen with our 14 year old DofE volunteer and five Brownies. We were making shortbread biscuits, and rolling and cutting out the dough before baking them. Then we had a power cut and had to think on our feet in terms of how we were going to entertain the Brownies whilst a leader sorted out the tripped switches and reset the (complicated) oven, what we would then do when the power came back, was it worth carrying on with the biscuits, should we get half the girls to make some and do the rest next week, what is on the programme for next week and can we be flexible? There was flour and biscuit dough everywhere (Brownies are not clean and tidy bakers) and we were making it up as we went along. But between us, we were a great team and the Brownies barely knew anything was wrong. So in that 90-minute Brownie meeting, our young volunteer learned about time management, how even the best made plans can go wrong, how to think on her feet, child safeguarding and that yes, even though you have asked the Brownies to roll up their sleeves, it is a much better idea to ask them to take off their jumpers entirely - flour gets everywhere.
Our plan is to gradually give our two teenage volunteers more and more responsibility - things like running games with the girls and taking small groups asides for different activities. Then building on this, so perhaps contributing to planning meetings, ideas and suggestions, is there an activity they want to run, can they bring in the equipment for it, are they happy to lead it? It's for them to see how much more there is to running a Brownie meeting than just turning up on a Monday night, but in easy small steps so they grow in confidence and ability all the way.
Sometimes it's hard to watch young leaders do a particular activity, as I feel that perhaps I could have explained it better, or they've missed out a key instruction, or I can see that Brownie over there isn't listening. But it's all about developing and learning from mistakes - no leader (adult or otherwise) is perfect and we can all learn from the experiences of others. The brilliant thing is when the young leader takes control of her activity and it is a success from start to finish - and I know that I've been a part in helping her to achieve that.
So #GrowingGuiding is not just about getting more leaders now to run help run units today. It's about nurturing the children in our care, inspiring them to volunteer so that they can be the leaders of tomorrow. Judging from the teenagers I've worked with recently, I think the future for Guiding is looking very bright indeed.
In related news, there was a 50p coin launched in 2010 to celebrate the centenary of Guiding. I managed to find two, and Ben has turned them into earrings for me. The perfect addition to my uniform, I think!