For two Saturdays a month, leaders and volunteers from the Columbia River Council Girl Scouts travel to cities across Southwest Washington and Oregon to pick up another, select group of Girl Scouts.
Instead of selling cookies or setting up for camp, the Girl Scouts in troops 60 and 1501 are visiting the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville — Oregon's only prison for women. Most of the girls are visiting their mothers; others visit aunts, sisters or grandmothers. And for several hours twice a month, these girls and their incarcerated relatives are given a chance to repair relationships.
The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program has been providing interactive activity time between girls and their mothers (or female relatives) since 1997 in Oregon. A new film, produced in association with the Northwest Film Center Young Filmmakers Program, chronicles their struggle to maintain relationships across great distances and behind prison walls.
"The Circle is Round" will be premiering at 2 p.m. on Feb. 11 in the McMenamins Kennedy School theater, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave. This film is another in the line of student-produced films made with the assistance of Sue Arbuthnot, filmmaker-in-residence at the Northwest Film Center. For "Circle," many of the Girl Scouts acted as the camera operators and interviewers, giving them a first-hand look at how a documentary film is made.
These Saturday visits are the only times most girls are able to visit their mothers. Ranging in age from 5 to 17, some of these Girl Scouts will go through the formative periods of their lives without their mothers, said Anita Noble, the program's manager.
"Some of these girls didn't have childhoods – that's difficult," Noble said.
The period of time before the girls are fully reunited with their mothers can vary; some of the scouts will be reunited with their mothers in months, others will have to years to see them released. Still others will never see the day their mother is set free.
After the girls are collected from points across Oregon and Washington, the spry group of scouts lines up to enter the heavily guarded prison. Receiving little special treatment, the scouts must pass through the prison's metal detectors — a process that can go painfully slow for the eager girls, as belts, hairpins and other small metallic adornments are removed. At this point, Noble said, the girls are anxious to see their mothers and they can be frustrated. Noble said the girls feel like "how many hoops do I have to jump through to see my mom?"
During the meeting sessions, girls and their relatives are allowed to hug, talk privately, sit closely and be in constant contact. Despite being under the watchful eyes of corrections officers, Noble said they try to make the two-hour sessions as close to regular scout meetings as possible. The women and girls will listen to speakers, work on projects or just talk about things going on in their lives.
During normal visitations, the girls wouldn't be allowed such close contact and interaction, said Norma Land, public information officer at Coffee Creek. Land said both the girls and the women benefit from the program, although statistics aren't kept regarding the program's success. Noble said they are working on tracking women in the program to see how many stay clean.
The program is funded in part by a $20,000 Department of Justice Grant, which requires the Girl Scout troop to focus on a theme for that year. Last year's theme centered on literacy, and the girls and women worked with the writing group, Write Around Portland. This year's theme is health.
While some in the community believe prison is a place no Girl Scout should visit, Noble thinks visiting their women relatives in Coffee Creek might help break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.
"What it has reminded girls of is the mistakes they know they don't want to make," she said.
To qualify for the program, Noble said the women at Coffee Creek must meet certain requirements and must be recommended by a counselor. No woman who has been convicted of a crime against a child is eligible. Once a woman is eligible, Coffee Creek forwards either their daughter's or relative's information to Noble for potential recruitment.
During the filming of the movie, Arbuthnot said the range of emotions captured on film illustrated the consequences of today's women's prison system.
"There's such stigma about prison and women," Arbuthnot said.
And if there's a stigma for the women, the stigma for the girls can be almost greater. The girls in the film express their own sense of isolation to the camera. Not only do they not have their moms around for the little things — singing in the car, getting advice about life — but the girls also feel they have no one to talk to about their situation.
All of that can change once a new troop member realizes other girls are going through the exact same experience, Noble said. The girls form strong bonds with each other, and despite living in different towns, they meet for regular scouting activities like any other Girl Scout troop.
"They're all great kids," she said. "They find out, 'Wow, she even looks like me.' There's that sense of, 'You know what I'm going through.' "
Since the film was completed, at least three mothers have been released from prison. Albuthnot said she filmed the release of one mother and may be creating an addendum for the film. But despite being free, the work between the women and the girls doesn't end – Noble said it is only the beginning. These women and girls face new challenges everyday, and Noble said the scouts try to maintain regular contact and often include the women in Girl Scout outings.
Noble said some newly released mothers are not granted immediate custody of their children, which means more time with fathers, grandparents, relatives or, for some, foster parents.
"We've seen more (Department of Human Services) girls than in the first year – that's disconcerting," she said.
Looking to the future, Noble said she is hoping to expand the program to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem so girls can have access to fathers, uncles, grandfathers and brothers. She said the Boy Scouts began a similar program nationally this year.
The Girl Scouts – Columbia River Council is also always looking for volunteers.
For more information, call 503-977-6805 or 977-6824 and ask for Anita or Kelly.