Girl guide camps aren’t what they used to be, says Girl Guiding NZ CEO Susan Coleman

Susan Coleman (52) is the Chief Executive of GirlGuiding New Zealand
Girl Guiding NZ Chief Executive Susan Coleman

“Everyone seems to associate biscuits and pitching a tent and lighting campfires with Guiding.

Certainly, some of the activities that I did as a Brownie continue today, but the world has evolved and Guiding has evolved with it.

When I was a Brownie, we danced around a toadstool and there was a fairy theme connected to this.

I remember as part of my enrolment looking for the elf in the mirror and finding myself.

This is no longer part of the Brownie programme, plus it has moved from being very home-based to being wide-ranging, including developing technology and budget skills.

Susan’s guiding the venerable organisation into a new era.

One of my greatest memories from my time as a Guide was leading my own camp with all that entailed, but without

any adults around.

It was very forward for the 1970s, but it was a wonderful opportunity and quite a unique experience back then. I would have been 13.

I also have vivid memories of digging latrines when we went camping – on the whole, that’s part of a bygone era.

The uniform has become much more informal with the colours now selected by the girls.

In 1970, the dresses were updated, with the pockets on the front removed, but badges were still sewn on sleeves and a beret worn. By 1982, we had pinafores with a blouse or T-shirt under, and a badge sash.

The method of selling biscuits has altered, but that has more to do with the way society has changed than anything else.

I remember very clearly going door to door on Saturday mornings selling biscuits. There aren’t many people at home on Saturdays any more.

The decision to stop selling biscuits after this year wasn’t an easy one.

They’re iconic in New Zealand and have been an important part of our fundraising for more than 60 years, but as our numbers declined, we had fewer and fewer people to sell them.

It became very time-consuming – the time spent selling them prevented our volunteers, parents and girls undertaking other activities.

Last year, we calculated girls and parents spent 63,312 hours a year selling biscuits, with other volunteers spending

an additional 45,100 hours.

This year was the last chance for Kiwis to enjoy the classic Girl Guide biscuit, which has been consigned to history.

I was born and grew up in Christchurch. I had a lovely upbringing.

My parents emigrated to New Zealand from the UK after travelling extensively. My dad Michael was a self-employed bespoke tailor and my mum Ruby was a tutor for the New Zealand Red Cross.

They shared their love of travel, culture and new experiences with me and my two siblings.

I had dual nationality, which was a real advantage. At 22, after I had qualified as a librarian, I did my OE, starting with a trip up through Africa to England and then on through Europe.

I also gained a thirst for learning about the world I live in through Guiding.

I still remember – I was eight or nine – desperately wanting to go to our Guiding ‘home’ in Switzerland. I had pictures of the actual chalet on my wall.

Susan attributes guiding for her thirst for learning about the world we live in.

I’ve had several changes of career.

I studied at Massey University extramurally when I came back from overseas and I moved to Nelson in 2001 to work for the city council.

It was my employer at the time who suggested I go for the chief executive’s role.

I wasn’t looking for a new job, but it was an utter values match for me, so I applied and was successful.

Guiding numbers were much higher in the 1970s and ’80s. We now have about 10,000 girls across Pippins, Brownies, Guides and Rangers, and around 1300 volunteers deliver our programmes.

Guiding wouldn’t happen without them, but unfortunately, we don’t have enough. We have about 800 girls on waiting lists wanting to join, but not enough helpers.

We’re developing alternative, flexible ways of engaging with Guiding. There’s the classic model, where girls join a unit and turn up on a regular basis, but we’ve also started digitising our programme for our youngest girls, where various activities are shared online.

If a girl can’t attend a local unit for any reason, we have what we call Aotearoa, which can deliver the Guiding programme via post, email, online – or even by text!”

Susan and the Guiding community are developing alternative, flexible ways of engaging with Guiding.

Quickfire questions with Susan

What’s the best way to eat a Girl Guide biscuit?

I don’t consider it a dunking biscuit, but it does make a terrific s’more!

I’s most like to have a cup of tea with?

Mai Chen, and have a conversation with her about cultural intelligence and diversity and inclusion.

The gadget I can’t live without?

My digital travel scale. Since investing in one I no longer have to repack my suitcase at check-in due to it being overweight. This used to occur on a regular basis.

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