Illinois Business Journal interviewed Loretta Graham, CEO of Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois for their March 2020 edition.
IBJ: the council is celebrating 100 years. The first troop was formed in East St. Louis?
Graham: Absolutely, that was one of the first after Juliette started the Girl Scouts organization in 1912. Eight years later, the Girl Scouts of East St. Louis was born.
Mrs. Dixie Dunham was the first appointed director, the only paid position at that time. And, under the leadership of Mrs. Ross and Mrs. Bowles, it was started. Then, Girl Scouts from Granite City, Belleville and just about all the Metro East all started.
Juliette Gordon Low started the first one in Savannah, GA. She came
from overseas (England) and was inspired by the Boy Scouts. She
thought, “We could do something like this for girls.”
IBJ: Boy Scouts were formed (in 1910), not too much before that.
Graham: She wanted to bring here what she saw overseas with Lord (Robert) Baden Powell (a longtime friend and the founder of Boy Scouting). She saw that women could do more than stay at home. They could go outside and do all these other things.
She started the first Girl Scout troop with 18 girls. She started with volunteers. She never dreamed we’d be 1.l7 million girls strong today.
IBJ: That’s just the current membership. Not counting the countless girls that have gone through since the beginning.
Graham: We have over 50 million alumni. Some very famous. If you touch any successful woman on the shoulder, she’s going to tell you she was involved in Girl Scouts. Jackie Joyner-Kersee? A Girl Scout. Just about every woman who’s flown into space? A Girl Scout. This last midterm election? Fifty-eight percent of the women elected were in Girl Scouts. Our success speaks for itself.
IBJ: Along the way, what were some of the biggest challenges for the local council?
Graham: In 1929, the big Depression came, which brought a lot of challenges for Girl Scouts here and all over. In 1935, the Girl Scouts here wanted a camp. One of the leaders wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for help. She helped the Girl Scouts start their first campsite at (Pere) Marquette Park (in Jersey County).
IBJ: The River Bluffs Girl Scout Council formed in 1962. Was it a patchwork of councils blended together?
Graham: Right, to my understanding. A lot of changes were happening during this time.
IBJ: When did you first get involved with Girl Scouts?
Graham: I am originally from South Carolina, the youngest in a family of 14. I was never a Girl Scout, but I always wanted to be. We worked on the farm a lot and we were more involved in 4-H. After I went to college, I became a professional in Girl Scouts. I had married into the military and went to Minot, N.D., where I was hired by the Girl Scout council there in 1990, starting as the membership and marketing director, then program director and diversity director. I left that by way of the military, when my husband moved to Louisiana where we spent one year. I came back to North Dakota to work as regional director of REM North Dakota (an agency that runs programs for those with disabilities). I did that job for seven years before coming back to Girl Scouting as the CEO of the Sakakawea Girl Scout Council in Bismarck, N.D. I spent 26 years in North Dakota before being called back home to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts of South Carolina.
IBJ: So, you went back home?
Graham: That story is interesting. When I left the cotton fields of South Carolina, I said I was not going back. But they needed a CEO; that council was in a lot of financial distress. My mother always said, “You didn’t make it by yourself. Somebody helped you.” The one person who inspired me to be the woman I am today is my mother. She worked hard to put seven of us through college. She did that by picking cotton and cropping tobacco. And she was a school maid (custodian) at the school I graduated from.
I said I’d spend two years and get the South Carolina council back on track and then go back to North Dakota because I had just built a house there. Nine years later, I left the council. It had a deficit of a million dollars when I got there, and a surplus of $1.3 million when I left. I left South Carolina in 2018 to become the CEO here.
IBJ: Where did you go to college?
Graham: Morris College in Sumter, S.C.
IBJ: The Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois started humbly, but today it’s mammoth. I know councils folded along the way. What happened?
Graham: So, in 2004-04, our national CEO, Kathy Cloninger, did a lot of research. There were 312 Girl Scout councils throughout the U.S. and River Bluffs Council (based in Glen Carbon) was one of them. Shagback (Council in the Mount Vernon area) was another. What we found was, we were good, but we could be great. A lot of councils began to merge. Some 312 councils came together and formed 112 councils. We were one of the last to do the merging process, forming the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois.
IBJ: The council now was 40 and a half counties. Have you been to every county?
Graham: I have. My whole thing since I’ve been at this council is, I’ll meet you where you are. I know, from going to these counties and talking to their leaders, there are some barriers. And I know coming from a rural area of South Carolina, I understand these things. So, we bought a truck where we take items all over the council to meet volunteers where we are. Another thing we just did: Girl Scouting is really into STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. We just purchased a STEM Mobile with the help of (a grant from) Google, that we’re going to be driving all over the council. We’re going to have programs in eight different areas, rather than have people drive here. Volunteers will have the choice of where to go.
IBJ: For training?
Graham: Training and girl programs – and the STEM truck. We do several programs that focus on the four pillars of Girl Scouting: outdoors, STEM, entrepreneurship, and life skills.
IBJ: What kind of operating budget do you have?
Graham: It’s about 3.8 million. About 55 staff. Subsidized by the cookie sale, United Way, and adult-generated funding. We also have special events. We just had a “United We Lead Gala” last year and we’re going to do it again this year. It was quite successful.
IBJ: With the financial structure you’re depending on the good will of the people to keep doing what you’re doing.
Graham: Our council is very much depending on the cookie sale – 70% of the revenue comes from that. I’m trying to turn that around, bring more adult-generated funding into this council.
IBJ: Do you have a series of events around the 100th anniversary?
Graham: Our theme this year is, “Continuing the Legacy, Building Leaders for the Next Century.” At our Annual Meeting March 28 at Bellecourt Manor in Belleville, we’ll continue the celebration of that. After that, we’ll have a big volunteer event continuing the celebration and we’ll have a girl event in June or July. We haven’t decided yet where we’re doing that.”
IBJ: The council here goes down to the Kentucky and Indiana borders now, doesn’t it? Basically, from about Macoupin County to the north and across the state and down? How many councils are there in Illinois now?
IBJ: You have the biggest?
Graham: As far as geographic area, yes, but the Chicago area has a whole lot more girls.
IBJ: How many girls in your council?
Graham: About 9,300.
IBJ: The need for volunteers has always been difficult. What do you do to keep the embers lit?
Graham: It’s very important that the volunteers be trained and trained properly. We engage them. If they are home with their kids, we want to make sure that they are able to take that training online. If they want to take it at 3 o’clock in the morning, they can take it at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Back in the day, Girl Scouting was once a week. They don’t necessarily do that now. Some may get once a week, and the older the girls get, it might be once a month. It’s the experience they encounter when they do meet that’s important.
Please note that this article was published in early March 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some event dates may change.