Go-getter, innovator, risk-taker, leader — G.I.R.L! These are the words that greet everyone who enters the Cathy Novinger Girl Scout Leadership Center for the Girl Scouts of South Carolina - Mountains to Midlands Council. Established for the Girl Scouts in the 22 counties served by the council but available to all Girl Scouts throughout the state, the leadership center provides a unique space for girls to grow their abilities to learn and lead. The center is the only one of its kind in the United States and one of just five such centers located throughout the world, including Our Cabaña in Cuernavaca, Mexico; Pax Lodge in Hampstead Village, in London, England; Kusafiri Centre in Africa; Our Chalet just outside Abelboden, Switzerland, in the Swiss Alps; and Sangam in Pune, India.
Girl Scouting has a long history in South Carolina. While the nation’s first troop was formed in 1912 by founder Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah, Georgia, area councils began forming in South Carolina in the 1930s. The Girl Scout Council of the Congaree formed in the late 1940s, serving girls in the Columbia area until 2007, when the council merged with Girl Scouts of the Old 96 Council and Girl Scouts of the Piedmont Area Council to form Girl Scouts of South Carolina - Mountains to Midlands.
Recognizing the need for a place where Girl Scouts could gather, the council began plans for the leadership center in 2011 when it bought the former South Carolina Department of Agriculture building, originally constructed in 1971. The industrial-style building, situated in the Vista near the banks of the Congaree River, is in close proximity to various learning opportunities, including the South Carolina State House, the South Carolina State Museum, Edventure Children’s Museum, and the University of South Carolina.
The Midlands Business Leaders Group, which helped raise funds for the $3 million capital campaign, decided to name the center in memory of Cathy Novinger, a well-known Columbia business leader and supporter of the Girl Scouts. Cathy, who passed away in 2016 following a lengthy battle against ovarian cancer, was known for her leadership skills in economic development, governmental affairs, and public relations, advocating for a better quality of life in the Midlands.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Lora Tucker serves as CEO of the Mountains to Midlands council. A lifelong Girl Scout herself, she achieved the First Class Award, now known as the Gold Award, the most prestigious award in Girl Scouts. Historic Columbia recognized the center with the 2021 Revitalization Award, and while she is proud of that award, Lora focuses more on the center’s role as an innovative model to prepare girls to empower themselves with leadership skills.
“These girls will go on to strengthen the fabric of our communities, our nation, and the world,” she says. “It will allow the girls to see who they can become, to lead their own lives, and to follow their dreams.”
Lora is excited that the center offers experiences for girls outside of the council’s area, as many Girl Scouts travel through Columbia on their way to visit Savannah, the birthplace of the Girl Scouts founder.
“We can provide a stopping-off point for Girl Scouts coming from across the country,” Lora says, “giving them experiences they otherwise may not have had.”
The 32,000-square-foot center offers a wide array of activities from the 20-foot-high indoor rappelling and rock climbing wall to the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics lab, Information Technology hub, arts studio, healthy living kitchen, and overnight bunk rooms. It also provides meeting space for area nonprofit organizations and businesses.
More importantly, the design of the center features input from the girls themselves — designed by girls for girls — including the bright, vibrant colors that adorn all the rooms, helping to inspire a more conducive learning environment.
Each overnight bunkroom is based on a different theme, ranging from the outdoors to STEM to global citizenship. The center also provides full-service indoor and outdoor catering kitchens, as well as a Girlz Gear shop, where Girl Scouts can find everything they need to complete their Girl Scout uniforms and the badges they earn. And, of course, an outdoor fire pit is available for roasting marshmallows and making s’mores.
Pat Green, who was a Girl Scout as a young girl, has served as a troop leader for Girl Scout Cadettes at First Nazareth Baptist Church in downtown Columbia since 1992, when her daughter joined the Girl Scouts.
“Scouting for African American girls was much more limited when I was a girl,” she says. “We did what we could with the limited resources we had available, and that led me to know that there had to be something better.”
Many of the girls her troop serves come from broken homes, foster homes, or may even be dealing with homelessness, and Pat understands from her own experiences what being involved with Girl Scouts provides.
“Being a scout does a myriad of things: helping them find confidence, encouraging them, and seeing their potential,” she says. “You can come from small beginnings and step to higher horizons.”
Having the leadership center gives Pat additional resources as a leader.
“We have a safe environment for the girls for their overnight trips and the opportunity for them to meet other girls,” she says. “It expands their chance to partner with other troops, to see how we can maximize what we are doing by connecting with other troops.”
Lara Winburn began serving as a troop leader when her daughter, Mayzie, joined the Girl Scouts as a Daisy, the entry level of Girl Scouts. Inspired by the Girl Scout tenets, Lara later accepted the role as chief development officer for the Mountains to Midlands council.
“The leadership center was a catalyst for me to work there,” she says. “As a parent, I see the impact that the center can have. It gives the girls an opportunity to shine in what they do best, whether it is in STEM-related activities or the outdoors. Cookies are important, but the girls are actually acting as entrepreneurs while selling cookies. They learn so much about science, technology, the arts, and the outdoors through activities at the leadership center.”
Mayzie, a fifth grader at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School, has been a Girl Scout for six years. She joined because she saw other girls making a difference in the world.
“I have learned that you can meet new friends, and I learned to be a bit braver with the rock-climbing wall because the other girls were supporting me and cheering me on,” she says, “I have also made new friends with girls outside of my troop.”
Mayzie, who is considering possible careers as a teacher or perhaps even a dancer, expanded her STEM capabilities in the STEM Lab by learning binary code.
“We used binary code to spell out our names for bracelets,” she says. “I love going there.”
Both of Brittany Wingo’s daughters, 12-year-old Reese and 7-year-old Chloe, started down their path in Girl Scouts as Daisies. Reese, who is now a Cadette Girl Scout, has learned that girls can do anything. Her troop worked in the STEM Lab, building iPad stands with power tools. She has also learned the importance of helping others.
“For the past two years, our troop bought gifts for a family in need through Families Helping Families. It showed me how fortunate I am by seeing what others have and what they need,” she says.
Chloe benefited from her big sister’s skills as Reese’s troop planned the Bridging Ceremony when Chloe transitioned from Daisy to Brownie. “It was so nice because we have the bridge at the center,” she says. “And I am looking forward to having sleepovers in the bunkrooms.”
Brittany, who co-leads Reese’s troop with Shawn Toole, sees tremendous value in what the center offers to her as a leader. “With the tools and safety protocols already in place, the center provides what we as leaders might not have the ability to do on our own,” she says. “There is so much value in bringing together girls and women to learn about each other, share experiences, and build confidence. Being a Girl Scout was an early lesson in that, as women, we are stronger together.”
For Shawn, knowing her daughter has access to such a center is key for the future of scouting as well. “There are ever-changing activities that I know the girls are benefiting from that they would not be able to get other places,” she says. “It is amazing how the center promotes the values of the Girl Scouts. With new technology and STEM opportunities, I hope that Girl Scouts continue to grow with the world around us.”
Shawn’s daughter, Abby, has also found new friendships through Girl Scouts. “Because of the center, we have had new experiences helping the younger scouts,” she says. “I get to make new friends, and I have learned how to be more friendly.”
While each member of the Girl Scouts has her own unique experience with her individual troop, the overall goal of the center is to provide the atmosphere that will allow them to grow as leaders. Lora believes the center, an urban environment with a rural reach, is a game changer not only for the Girl Scouts but for the community as well.
“We are always thinking about how we can help the next generation of female business owners, educators, scientists, and community leaders succeed,” says Lora. “We know that a big part of this comes from continuing to offer them an unparalleled experience, which encourages them to develop a strong sense of self, connect with their local and global communities, and unleash their potential to make a difference in the world.
“This is a much different leadership experience from the past,” she says. “The girls lead the experience and learn by doing. We are developing the strong leaders for families, for the community, for our state, our nation, even the world. That is the greatest intangible benefit.”