“I thought it was going to be boring….” opined one camper thoughtfully chewing her pizza while heads nodded. “Yeah, my mom made me come,” said another, rolling her eyes, “I thought we were going to have lectures all day by ladies in suits.”
“Well, have we disappointed you?” I asked, letting the question hang there for moment, before they exploded in giggles.
“It’s been so fun!” they exclaimed, “the CEO’s are just like us, only older!”
Mission accomplished. Take one group of 35 Girls Scouts in their early high school years, mix in 35 accomplished women CEO’s and business leaders — bank presidents, real estate entrepreneurs, well known journalists, managing partners in law firms, senior partners in the leading accounting firms, even a university president — put them all in tents and shorts and bathing suits, on kayaks and hikes and teams making up silly songs — and, voila! — they become girls and women together on life’s journey, teaching each other about the places they’ve been, the things they’ve seen and experienced, their fears and disappointments, their hopes and dreams.
Camp CEO is the brilliant creation of Jan Verhage, executive director of the Girl Scouts of the Nation’s Capital (that’s Jan in the pink shirt in the photo above, admiring the scrapbook pages the girls made). We celebrated the program’s tenth anniversary this year in typical Girl Scout style — spending mornings sitting on lawn chairs up-to-our-waists in the waters of Aquia Creek watching osprey dive for fish while others paddled out to the middle of the river to get a better view. Later each day, stepdancing and scrapbooking and porch games prevailed. At any given moment, someone might break into songs about elephants riding bicycles or chartreuse buzzards or a princess sailing her rig-a-bam-boo.
Each day begins with a post-breakfast conversation called “Dreaming Your Future,” the only part of the program that’s even close to a presentation — NO POWERPOINT ALLOWED!! The CEO’s talk to the girls about their real lives: how this one balanced children and family and entrepreneurship, how that one disproved the college professor who said she would never be welcome in the engineering courses, how this other one started off in one profession only to learn she hated what she first thought she’d love, and now she’s hugely successful on another career path. Whatever the career path, the messages we share with the girls are remarkably the same, delivered subtly but firmly: don’t let anybody put you down, learn to conquer subjects you find hard, take risks, accept disappointment as part of life but don’t let failure stop you, be excellent at what you do and be willing to work very hard to achieve your goals.
The girls have messages for the CEO’s, too: there’s another generation coming along fast, they’re smart and sharp and have big dreams. They feel pressure to excel at everything already, and they want to find some balance. They are curious about the lives of older women executives, and they are deeply relieved to realize, “You’re just like us, only older.” This simple recognition of kinship with women who have some achievements on their resumes is immensely empowering for young women. The sisterhood we create at camp — the young and old girl’s network spinning many strands of relationships that have grown over the years — is a powerful outcome of simple, uncomplicated moments of sharing.
In this complicated world that’s often so treacherous for teenage girls, nothing could be more genuine than learning to fall asleep to the chirping crickets and waking to the early songbirds, harmonizing in rounds of traditional songs, learning to paddle a kayak for the very first time, or wading out up to your knees in a river you’ve always seen but never touched. The essential simplicity of the Girl Scout method calls out the fundamental goodness that too often gets short shrift in the lives of girls — of all ages!
One girl wrote on her scrapbook page: “Camp CEO, the place 2 be, where normal girls learn 2 b free..”
Amen to that! Happy 10th Anniversary to all my friends from Camp CEO!