Little did I know that when my mother signed me up for Girl Scouts, it would eventually lead me to the White House!
Written by Denise Viau, Camping Manager, Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital
As a Girl Scout, I fell in love with camping on my first trip to Camp Welaka in Tequesta, Florida. I would eventually become a counselor in training and discover my passion for working with youth. By the time I was a Girl Scout Senior, my troop organized an encampment for younger girls. It was on that trip I recognized my leadership skills. I continued on with my Girl Scout journey, earning the First Class pin, the highest award at the time. Today I am part of the distinguished Gold Award Family. My Girl Scout experience taught me that with hard work, dedication and passion I could accomplish anything!
In 1992, Girl Scouting launched my career when I was hired as a Camp Director for Camp Potomac Woods in Leesburg, VA. That summer I found a new home in the Washington DC area. The summer of 1994, my dream came true. I was hired as the Camping Services Manager, a full time position for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital.
On June 30, 2015, 32 years after my first summer camp experiences at Camp Welaka, I had the unique and unbelievable opportunity to accompany 13 very lucky Girl Scouts and two amazing Girl Scout volunteers to the White House. It was to be the first ever campout on the White House lawn, and I helped to plan it! Our day began at the 4-H Center where Girl Scouts from five councils across the country gathered to get acquainted. I left early for the White House with other Girl Scout staff to prepare for the girls arrival. We unloaded the gear and waited for it to be checked by the Secret Service.
Once we received the “all clear,” it was time for us to go through security and receive our credentials for the day. We weren’t able to go directly to the South Lawn because the President of Brazil was visiting and the White House staff requested that we wait until she left.
After we were given the “All Clear” again to proceed to the South Lawn, we rounded the corner and saw members of the National Park Service assembling our tents. We all quickly jumped into set-up mode, which included pitching additional tents, assembling lanterns and delivering the girls’ luggage to the tents. As we approached a tree we were met by another Secret Service member with a stern smile. We asked if that was the Rose Garden and he said yes, and the Oval Office! I found myself walking around on the lawn of the White House from tent to tent and pausing to ask myself—is this really happening? Am I actually camping at the White House? I knew the girls were on their way, but I wanted to take a minute to myself and take it all in.
Finally, the girls arrived. I got chills when I saw them run out to the White House lawn, dressed in Girl Scout vests and proudly displaying their badges. I couldn’t help but wonder if this experience would change the course of one of their lives, like my first camping experience so many years ago.
Next it was time for a briefing by the Secret Service. They had three different Secret Service agents come out, each with a different look; one in a dark suit, one in the traditional white shirt dark pants uniform and one dressed in full amour gear. They felt it was very important for the girls to see the three different looks of a Secret Service agent, and explained that they were here to protect the President. Then it was time for the activities to begin. Michelle Obama, the First Lady and honorary president of Girl Scouts, welcomed Girl Scouts to the most distinguished National Park in the United States—the White House. After a quick welcome Mrs. Obama said to the girls, “let’s move,” which was their cue to start the FUN!
I was overcome by emotion as I walked from station to station watching the girls and the First Lady participate in traditional outdoor activities, like knot tying, tent pitching and orienteering, skills I am sure Juliette Low herself once taught girls.
After the activities started to wind down it was time for dinner. The plan was to cook out on the lawn, but impending weather forced a slight change in plans, and we had to move to the State Room! The girls all gathered and we walked up the steps of the White House to the State Room. Dinner included hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled vegetables and banana boats for dessert.
Dinner ended with a very special surprise. The girls were called by tables to a top secret location. When they entered the room they were greeted by…the First Dogs!
After dinner we returned to the White House lawn for the evening activities. As the sun began to set we all gathered around the “campfire” for fellowship and songs. It was an unbelievable sight to watch the sun set over our Nation’s Capitol from the lawn of the White House with Girl Scouts. We sang a few rounds of Make New Friends and met a female astronaut from NASA. Then it happened—the girls started to gasp and giggle with excitement. My eyes filled with tears as I watched First Lady and the President of the United States walk out of the White House towards the girls. It was at that moment that I realized the magnitude of what was happening. We were sitting around a campfire and signing songs with the President because they were Girl Scouts.
By the number of press taking pictures, I also knew a national spotlight would shine on Girl Scouting and the importance of getting girls outside. The President sat down and asked the girls, “What are you doing in my backyard?” We sang songs and laughed. President Obama was so down to earth and very present with the girls. As the program was ending, the President looked in the distance and asked “Who are all those people in the green shirts?” The girls all responded, “Our leaders!” Then one brave little girl asked, “Can we have a hug?” The president responded with, “How about a group hug?” Without missing a beat, all 50 girls got up and ran toward the president. The Secret Service jumped but the president looked at the agents and said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”
As the President was leaving he walked over to all the volunteers and shook each one of our hands. Again. My eyes filled with tears as I waited for him to reach me. He reached for my hand and I looked him in the eyes and said “Thank you Mr. President for inviting us to your backyard.” He laughed and said, “My pleasure.” The next thing I knew the First Lady was headed our way. I shook her hand too and said that you for making memories that will last a lifetime for these girls. She looked at me and said, “Lifetime memories for all of us.”