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What makes a great Girl Scout leader? One leader sets example for others to follow

Aug 08, 2023 04:02PM ● By Julie Slama

Fifty-seven-year-old Shari Solomon-Klebba was harnessed, dangling about 100 feet from a tree.

She was with her Girl Scout troop on an approved climb to scale giant, old-growth pines to see the views of the Olympic Peninsula from Washington’s San Juan Islands. 

Solomon-Klebba wasn’t scared or mad. Instead, she was joking as a guide was helping her accomplish her goal.

It was her first-time trying tree canopy climbing — and it wasn’t the only thing that didn’t go as planned for the co-leader of a high school-aged troop of girls. After trying 20 minutes to learn how to climb the tree ropes, Solomon-Klebba didn’t master it. Instead of giving up or becoming frustrated, she graciously accepted an ascending device to help her summit the 250 feet so she wouldn’t deprive the girls of the unique experience.

Through this experience, the Taylorsville role model exemplified the mission of Girl Scouting: courage — being willing to take on challenges and showing resilience from setbacks; confidence — accomplishing what she set out to do; and character — showing positive values in a challenging time.

In Utah, there are thousands of Girl Scouts. 

They’re learning first aid, scaling new heights and advocating to better the community — in addition to performing service projects and selling Girl Scout cookies to earn money to go to camp.

Supporting them are countless volunteers.

While volunteers serve many roles, they are the backbone support to a troop of girls age 5 through 18 running program-based meetings to provide Girl Scout experiences. These troops may be a group of neighborhood girls, those in community and refugee centers, or in homeless and domestic shelters.

Many of these volunteers were Girl Scouts themselves.  

According to Girl Scouts of the USA’s 2021 alumni facts, more than one in three women in the United States were Girl Scouts at some point in their lives, resulting in more than 50 million Girl Scout alumnae. 

More than 80% hold positions of leadership — 71% of the women in U.S. senate are Girl Scout alums and every female U.S. secretary of state has been a Girl Scout or Girl Guide (as they are commonly called in other countries).

Girl Scouts volunteer alumni earned higher levels of education (78%), more satisfied in their careers (68%) and are more likely to be involved civically (86%). If they earned the Gold Award, the alums are more likely to become more committed and volunteer.

The majority, like Solomon-Klebba, assert Girl Scouts has a positive impact on their lives. 

Growing up, Solomon-Klebba was a member in several troops, including being part of what is now-known as Girl Scouts Overseas and a Mariner specialty troop. She found a place of belonging where others not just accepted her, but welcomed her. She thrived in this niche, earning her Girl Scout’s highest awards, First Class and Gold Award, and now, pays it back, volunteering to regularly mentor high school age girls who are earning their Gold Awards.

As a teacher for the deaf, Solomon-Klebba not only champions for those kids, but also for Girl Scouts. Just days after returning from her troop trip from the San Juan Islands, she dedicated several days to teaching new skills to Girl Scouts who came to statewide camporee. She also helped with the triennial 53rd Girl Scout Convention held in Salt Lake City in 2014.

Solomon-Klebba joined Girl Scouting as a 7-year-old Brownie in a multi-level troop in Norway. Her sister, Peg, was three years older and had already been a Scout when the family lived in Alaska. Finding no existing troop at the American school overseas, her mother started one for girls of all ages.

When the family moved to multiple Midwest states for her dad’s civil engineering job, her mother continued to be the troop leader. Camping was a big part of her life growing up, both with Scouts and her family. Her father liked to tinker and make things work, much like she does as she and her family recently converted a van and a school bus into campers.

“I’ve always had strong science interests. Nature, plants and flowers, animals — it was a big part of my life,” she said. “I thought I’d be a vet.”

Her family moved again, to Salt Lake City, where she joined another Girl Scout troop, and attended Churchill Junior High and Skyline High.

Solomon-Klebba bonded with the girls in that troop. They worked on badges and performed service projects. Five of them joined her in the summers to be counselors at Cloud Rim residential camp, something she did every summer for seven years. She also served as a girl representative on the council’s board of directors and a co-leader for an elementary-age troop at the YWCA.

Several of her troop members were part of a specialty Mariner troop.

“We did everything boat and water related. We sailed, canoed, kayaked, wind sailed, rowed boats. We’d go to (Newport) California and compete at the Girl Scout gathering with other Mariners and be tested on parts of a ship, semaphore, Morse code, and knots, and we had boating and swimming races. We’d draw the shape of a ship around our campsite, so we had to keep everything shipshape,” she said.

Solomon-Klebba was one of eight girls across the U.S. selected to go to Venezuela to celebrate the country’s 25th anniversary of Girl Guiding shortly after the U.S. celebrated 70 years of Girl Scouting.

“We slept in army tents at a primitive camp in the back of a jungle. The camp was militaristic. We’d line up for uniform inspections and have calisthenics. We learned that girls in Venezuela were selected, so it was distinguished to be part of their eight-member patrol,” she said, adding that girls from Trinidad and Tobago participated in the gathering, too.

Solomon-Klebba also found a direction for her life.

In her troop, she learned some sign language to accompany Girl Scout songs. As a counselor, she used that skill to communicate with girls who were deaf and attended camp sessions and with a deaf staff member at camp.

But at Utah State University, she was studying science.

“Even though I love science, I wasn't enjoying it. I liked my sign language class, and I was told I should be a teacher. I remembered as a kid, I always played school and I loved teaching at Girl Scout camp, so I sat down with my professor and asked how I should pursue it,” she said.

Solomon-Klebba earned her bachelor's in elementary education with a minor in communicative disorders and has her master’s in deaf education. She also has a science endorsement.

“I’m a teacher for the deaf who teaches science. I love science and like that I can make learning accessible for deaf students,” she said.

She has taught 30 years in deaf education. She has worked at Jean Massieu School of the Deaf, as well as in Wyoming, Colorado and Maine. In 2019, she was nominated for the national LifeChanger of the Year award.

“Many of the things I learned in Girl Scouts, I incorporate in my teaching, both in science and leadership such as taking care of environment and making sure everyone knows what’s going on and is included. I teach them to think outside the box, how to work as a team and how to problem solve, skills I learn and teach in Girl Scouts,” she said.

She is an advocate for her students. She leads after-school activities such as FIRST LEGO League, Battle of the Books and Academic Bowl.

“I’m giving my deaf students opportunities the same opportunities as everyone else,” she said. “When I was in Colorado, our students competed against traditional schools in an academic speed event called Match Witz. We lobbied to have questions given ahead of time to our interpreters so our deaf students would be on equal playing ground as others because when you're interpreting, there's always a delay. It’s important that we give everybody equal footing.”

She can make connections between her profession and her personal life.

“I'm a member of the LGBTQ community, and I see lots of similarities with the deaf community. The oppression they've encountered and are still battling, such as accessibility. The incident with Match Witz happened a while ago in a different state, but that kind of thing continues to happen. Similarly, there’s lots of oppression in the LGBTQ community. We've had to go through same sex marriage, and it's still something we’re having to fight for constantly,” she said.

Solomon-Klebba said it’s through Girl Scouting that she found a place to connect.

“I was shy as a teen, probably because I didn't have interest in the normal stuff teenagers typically do. I didn't go to dances; I didn’t go to prom. I didn't enjoy high school at all,” she remembered.  “As soon as my schoolwork was done, I got to do Girl Scout stuff. Girl Scouts was my connection. Girl Scouts kept me alive. I think if I hadn't had it….I connected with people and made lifelong friendships. It wasn’t all talk about who you're dating. Girl Scouts gave me a place where I could succeed and become who I am today.”

Solomon-Klebba didn’t come out until college. 

“I was raised in the Catholic Church, so I thought my only choice was to become a nun. When I told my parents, I was expecting that my mom would be OK with it and my dad would be the one that struggles. Dad was sitting across the table and Mom was sitting right next to me. Dad got up and came around the table and gave me a hug. Mom couldn't even look at me. It was the weirdest thing because it was totally not what I expected,” she said, adding that it was the initial shock that surprised her mother. “Now, I talk openly and freely about my wife; I'm not afraid of people’s views.”

She also had to face not being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Being in Utah and not part of the dominant religion was a learning curve for me,” she remembered. “Within the first three minutes of any conversation, they want to know what ward you’re in. It was an assumption that everybody in Utah is LDS. I felt excluded. I knew I was Catholic, but I didn’t know what that meant as my family didn’t talk about it much. I had to find who I was, what worked for me.”

Now, she’s married to her spouse, Cindy, who not only is a college history professor, but also a minister. She, too, is a Girl Scout, as is their college-age daughter, who was a member of both a traditional troop and as a specialty outdoors troop.

“I know how important Girl Scouts can be to someone. I want to make sure girls have a connection because I know how that feels,” Solomon-Klebba said. “Girl Scouting is part of who I am. When I make a decision, it’s based on the Girl Scout Promise and Law. My actions and my words show I’m a person of character and I have confidence and am courageous. Like with tree climbing, it didn’t go as planned, but I was able to see everything, feel the movement of the tree and made sure the girls had that same opportunity. Girl Scouts made me feel comfortable in that situation. I want girls to know that they have a place where they have agency. I want them to know who they are, what they want and have that faith in their abilities. It’s important we empower girls and young women.” λ