On Friday, June 7, Burnsville natives and Girl Scout troop leaders Molly Kentala and Jennifer Gascoigne watched five of their troop members walk across the stage and receive their diplomas at Burnsville High School.
The two have led the group of same-age girls in Troop 12040 for the past 12 years.
Kentala and Gascoigne had all the more reason to celebrate last weekend. It is rare for a Girl Scout troop to retain girls through the high school years. It is even more rare when the troop was run in the beginning by two 18-year-olds, who are now 30-year-old women. The seven members graduated as Girl Scout Ambassadors, a title reserved for members who reach the 11th and 12th grades.
When Kentala and Gascoigne attended an adult Girl Scout meeting 12 years ago, they never thought they would be leaving with a troop of their own. A leader announced she needed someone to take over her troop of 6-year-old Brownies. That’s when Kentala and Gascoigne volunteered on a whim. The two were fresh out of high school.
“I thought she didn’t know what she was getting into,” said Kentala’s mother, Jan.
In the beginning, Kentala and Gascoigne, both studying at the University of Minnesota, rode the bus an hour out to Burnsville to run the bimonthly meetings.
“I was definitely nervous,” Molly Kentala said. “Some parents were leery with us being so young. Most troop leaders are parents themselves.”
Kentala and Gascoigne not only took on the group of 6-year-olds, but stayed with them all the way through their high school years.
“Seeing the girls graduate was surreal,” Kentala said. “I never thought we would have made it until the end.”
Kentala and Gascoigne both graduated from Burnsville High School 12 years ago. They also graduated as Girl Scouts.
“I had such a good experience growing up,” Kentala said. “Girl Scouts has given me so much through the years.”
Kentala thought her experience as a Girl Scout would help her to lead a troop of her own. They started out with about 10 girls. Some left over the years as other commitments arose, and some joined as other troops disbanded. Seven girls from the troop made it through graduation.
While Kentala and Gascoigne’s young age initially fueled some skepticism, it later helped them reach out to members. As just 12 years their senior, the girls felt comfortable approaching the leaders on subjects that would have otherwise not come up.
“They just understood us more,” said troop member Sarah Fundaun, who transferred into the troop six years ago. Her original troop had been run by a mother. “Moms are just moms. Molly and Jenny are our friends.”
“They’re are amazing leaders and someone we can talk to if we need anything,” troop member Morgan Harding said.
Kentala and Gascoigne also mentored the girls as they went through difficult times growing up. Whether it be family deaths, a parent deployed in the military or a house foreclosed, the troop was a support system for all involved.
“The group meant so much to me. It was a family when I needed it,” Fundaun said.
“The troop was able to help me through tough times,” said 13-year member Kelley Below. “And it allowed me to meet my best friend.”
“Molly and Jenny are like big sisters,” Harding said.
Looking back, members and leaders alike fondly remember summers at camp, autumns in the apple orchard, and just spending time together. Throughout the past 12 years, each meeting began with a snack. It was a time for the girls to catch up. Kentala’s favorite part of leading the group was “just getting to see the girls twice a month, whether at college or at my first job. We all grew up together.”
Though they have graduated, the troop’s strong bonds will keep them together as they move on in life. Soon to be spread across North Carolina, Massachusetts, Washington and Iowa, the members plan to keep in touch online. Next fall, they plan to have a reunion while they are home on break.
Perhaps the best compliment of all is reflected in the aspirations of the graduating members: four want to continue their involvement with Girl Scouts and start troops of their own. Harding plans on starting a troop with another member this September. Two others plan on starting troops later on in life.
As for Kentala, she plans on starting a new troop once she has a daughter in the coming years. In the meantime, she is considering taking on an older troop.
“They’re amazing people,” Fundaun said. “We’ll be friends for life.”