Girl Scout troops in Douglas County have a new public relations coordinator.
Mary Jo Vanderwarker brings some unique skills to the table in her new capacity as public relations coordinator for Douglas County's Girl Scouts.
Vanderwarker, 37, served from 1980 to 1983 as a combat medic and cardiac technologist with the U.S. Army.
She spent 13 months of that time in South Korea.
"It was pretty cool. I came back from Korea when I was 19. I had seen and done everything. I saw more than I actually wanted to see," she said.
Is any of her army training useful when working with local Daisies and Brownies?
"Nobody shoots at me now, so I don't know," she said, laughing. "Sometimes it's hard to get little girls all on the same page and focused."
Vanderwarker is the first volunteer ever assigned to handle public relations for all of the county's Girl Scout troops. At last count, that represents 1,020 girls in kindergarten through high school.
This is the first year all of the area's troops from Lawrence, Eudora, Baldwin and Lecompton have been combined from three separate service units into one.
Douglas County is one of 13 northeast Kansas counties served by the Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council, based in Topeka.
Vanderwarker's also a volunteer co-leader of Girl Scout Troop 640, which includes 18 Brownie girls, ages 6-8. Her daughter Taylor, 6, a student at Deerfield School, is a member of the troop.
The other co-leader is Angie Sutter of Lawrence. Her daughter Marley, 7, also is a Troop 640 member and student at Deerfield.
Girl Scouts fall into five age-defined groups: Daisies, ages 5-6; Brownies, 6-8; Juniors, 8-11; Cadettes, 11-14; and Seniors, 14-17.
Vanderwarker, who was a Girl Scout for 10 years, initially volunteered to be Troop 640's co-leader because of her daughter's enthusiasm for scouting.
"When Taylor said she wanted to stay in the Girl Scouts, I decided I'm in it for the long haul. As long as she's in it, I'm in it. I guess I know what I'll be up to the next 10 years," she said, smiling.
When the call went out for a volunteer to take the countywide public relations job, Vanderwarker raised her hand again.
"I thought, well, Girls Scouts is such a good cause, and they've done so much to update their image. I'm new in Lawrence, and it's a good way to meet people. I've met so many other adult volunteers just in the two months since I've started," she said.
'A different breed'
Her entry into the public relations world is a bit ironic.
Vanderwarker's husband, Peter, 33, worked nine seasons as an assistant public relations director for the Seattle Mariners.
"When I got home from the meeting (in which she offered to do public relations), I slid the volunteer form across the kitchen counter to him. He just kind of smiled at me. I thought, 'How bad could it be?'
"Pete had some tough nights in the clubhouse after some terrible losses, and he had to let the reporters in. It's not easy," she said.
Her husband is now an attorney with the Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin law firm in Overland Park.
The Vanderwarkers moved to Lawrence in March 1998 from Topeka, where they had lived for two years while Peter earned his law degree at Washburn University.
The message Mary Jo said she wants to get out is that today's Girl Scouts are a different breed.
"Around fourth grade, there's a 60 percent dropout rate (among Girl Scouts) because some girls don't think it's 'cool' anymore. But the organization is a lot more up-to-date than it used to be.
"We're not just about the cookies and the camp-outs. We have Girl Scouts working in homeless shelters, doing outreach and community service projects," she said.
This approach is reflected in the types of badges that Girl Scouts can earn these days.
Vanderwarker noted that some badges are awarded for skills developed in such areas as architecture, aerospace and computers. Other badges reward the demonstration of qualities such as leadership, heritage and self-esteem.
"Just about any interest, hobby or activity is really covered now," she said.
Vanderwarker is a big booster for the organization.
"I was a little nervous about the PR job at first, but it's something I believe in. The Girl Scouts make a difference in people's lives. (U.S. Supreme Court Judge) Sandra Day O'Connor was a Girl Scout, for example, and that's a really good role model. Girls need more of them," she said.
"We're trying to keep girls in it (the organization) as long as possible. We have girls from every race, religion and socioeconomic group.
"We want every girl to be a Girl Scout."
-- Jim Baker's phone message number is 832-7173; his e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.