Anna Maria Chávez: Scouting Ahead

As Mexican-American Anna Maria Chávez tells it, when she came home from elementary school one day in tiny Eloy, Ariz., and announced she wanted to go to Girl Scout camp, her abuelita was not pleased.

“Oh, no, no, m’hija,” said the woman she called Nana. “We came from the migrant camps; we don’t want to go back!”

Thankfully, the confusion was cleared up, and then 10-year-old Chávez was able to attend sleepaway camp. It was, of course, worlds away from the fields in which her father had labored. But both would turn out to be the key to Chávez’s success. Her parents’ toil, she says, provided their three kids with “the gift of education and the ability to reach out and live that American dream.”

Chávez attended Yale University, went to law school and worked a number of state and federal government jobs -- including one for Janet Napolitano, former Arizona governor and current secretary of Homeland Security -- before going back to her Girl Scout roots. This summer, she was tapped to become the next CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA -- the first person of color in the organization’s 100 years.

“I truly am living the American dream,” says Chávez. With 2.3 million girl members and nearly 880,000 adult members, the Girl Scouts is one of the nation’s largest nonprofits. Like many, it is increasingly trying to make inroads among Latinos: A concerted push on the organization’s part resulted in the numbers of Hispanic Girl Scouts rising 55 percent between 2000 and 2010.

“They need encouragement,” says Chávez of her charges. “They need someone to tell them that anything is possible.”

According to Chávez, kids also need to believe in themselves in order to combat issues such as bullying.

Step No. 1: Understanding that gossiping, teasing and exclusion aren’t just kid stuff.

Step No. 2: Building confidence. “It’s a crucial step towards empowering them to prevent relational aggression before it starts and stopping it when they see it,” she says. “Girls truly are the future of this country.”

“I want all youth -- and girls in particular -- to understand that anything is possible as long as you study hard, give back to the community and stay positive when obstacles get in the way.”

by Sandy M. Fernández