Many people associate Girl Scouts with the annual cookie drive.
Thin Mints in the green box, Samoas in the purple, Tagalongs in the red. Yet, the organization is much more than that.
Girl Scouts is the largest leadership development program for girls in the United States. Duval County is part of the Gateway Council — 16 counties, nearly 9,000 girls, 3,500 volunteers along with countless lessons learned.
Jacksonville also is where Mary Anne Jacobs, the region’s “head” Girl Scout as CEO, has spent nearly the past three years shaping the organization and the girls it serves.
“I want them to be confident,” said Jacobs.
Being more likely to graduate high school. Earning more money as an adult. Becoming civic leaders. Jacobs said data shows being in the group even a year leads to higher rates of all of those and more.
“Every girl that wants to be a Girl Scout, should be a Girl Scout,” said Jacobs.
The western Pennsylvania native was one growing up and the experience made her see the world differently after a bus ride.
Tragedy as a mother later shaped her resolve and affirmation to children’s causes. And in retirement from the corporate world, she was able to make the difference she’s always wanted.
Getting off the bus
You don’t become the top Girl Scout without starting at the bottom.
Jacobs, 58, was a Girl Scout growing up in a small town called Homer City a couple of hours outside Pittsburgh.
She was a good camper during the day. At night, not so much — the dark, bumps in the night and scary stories all spooked her.
She learned to sew, a skill that came in handy later when she needed to make curtains for her first apartment. She learned archery and how to shoot a gun.
Overall, it took her out of her comfort zone.
However, it was a bus ride to Washington, D.C., during high school that really opened her eyes. Her town was mostly white and her school had just one black student. Stepping off the bus, she saw something different.
“I saw the world was a different place,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to stay in my little hometown.”
After college at West Virginia University, Jacobs and friends moved to their summer solace of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
It was there she met her first husband and had children while becoming a community leader in the tourist destination.
Unfortunately, it also was where tragedy struck. She lost her infant son, Andrew, in a crime. He was shaken to death at an unlicensed daycare. Andrew would have been 28 this year.
The grieving process included working with other parents to raise awareness of unlicensed childcare centers. Her advocacy for children had begun.
“Some people are able to take that (type of tragedy) and turn it into something positive,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
She stayed in Myrtle Beach and took a telecommunications job. It was fast-paced and she loved it. She met her current husband, Jeff, during that time.
Jacobs ran systems for the cable operator but after working her way up, she took a position in 2002 in the corporate office in Columbia, S.C.
Her role was public policy and government relations for the company in the Legislature, which she did until she retired. However, when talking with the human resources director about her next steps, Jacobs was contacted by someone.
It was a recruiter from the Girl Scouts.
Leading girls out of their comfort zones
The Girl Scouts were interested in her coming to Raleigh, N.C., or Jacksonville to take on a leadership role. She could bring a business perspective after a career running companies and crafting public policy with Time Warner.
Plus, she had been a Girl Scout since becoming a Brownie in 1963.
She took the position almost three years ago, walking into the Riverside building she said looked like a hospital extension.
At that point, the organization had 55 staff members. She trimmed it to 29 and revamped the place, filling it with colorful scout-inspired murals and making it a welcoming place for Girl Scouts to visit.
And they do, many times for the in-house store.
When Jacobs sees one visit, she often makes time to introduce herself and chit-chat with the family.
On Tuesday, the opportunity arose when 8-year-old Londyn Dickens and her mother stopped by to buy a shirt before a big cookie sale this weekend.
“We have a Brownie in the store!” Jacobs said when she saw the two toward the back of the shop.
Not even five minutes of conversation helps little girls build their confidence, she later said. Instead of being shy and cowering behind their parents, the next time the girls visit the office they’re typically the ones looking for her.
Every time they come in the store, Jacobs takes a picture and talks about the Girl Scout experience to find out how things are going.
If the girl is a Daisy — the younger group consisting of kindergartners and first-graders — the conversation often is about their hopes.
Confidence is something developed under Girl Scouts. It can come from going door-to-door selling treats or learning online skills through the council’s ecommerce website. It can come from developing friendships and helping one another out through challenges.
“It takes them out of their comfort zone,” said Jacobs.
Enjoying busy life of retirement
With 16 counties under her leadership, Jacobs hits the road often.
Since arriving almost three years ago, she’s racked up about 70,000 miles visiting troops and volunteers.
Those volunteers often have day jobs, so it’s a lot of evening visits — not that she minds. She tries to stay accessible.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Jacobs said. “But I enjoy it.”
The money raised by the girls stays within the local market. A portion goes toward giving back to the community in some form, while other funds are set away for travel and other activities.
Not every parent thinks about Girl Scouts. Or maybe they’ve already registered their girls in soccer or dance. Jacobs knows time limitations can be a factor, but there can be room for both. She just knows the lessons learned.
“I want girls everywhere, in Palatka, in Baker County, everywhere to have the global experience,” she said. “To see the world is different.”
Jacobs wants them to have the experience she had, stepping off the bus in Washington, D.C.
She wants them to learn the life skills to be better leaders. And maybe one day down the line, become that top Girl Scout like she is now.