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The Troop Leader

Feb. 28, 2012

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Melanie Thortis

For two hours, on the first and third Saturday of every month, Lake Elementary School in Jackson is filled with the singing and laughter of about 90 girls. They comprise five local Girl Scout troops, and one woman stands at the helm of them all: Lorenda Cheeks.

The girls, who range in age from 5 years old to 17 or 18 years old, gather together for the opening ceremonies of their meeting. They say the Girl Scout Promise and they sing a Girl Scout song before breaking into their various age groups for activities and lessons.

These girls come mostly from west Jackson. In some cases, their grandparents are raising them. They need a little guidance, confidence and self-esteem, and they’re getting it from the Girl Scouts.

“I come across so many girls with low self-esteem, and I wanted to help by building self-esteem in these young girls,” said Cheeks, who is the principal at Oak Forest Elementary School in Jackson. “My hope is that they’ll be able to become constructive citizens in life.”

Cheeks grew up in Jackson and joined Girl Scouts at the Brownie level when she was 7. Other extracurricular activities led her to quit scouts in high school, but she came back to it after college as a leader.

She served as an assistant leader with the Oak Hill Service Unit for several years before becoming assistant principal at Pecan Park Elementary. The parent-teacher association wanted to form a Girl Scout troop at the school, and they asked Cheeks to get it started.

When Cheeks then moved to Lake Elementary School as an assistant principal, she kept her Girl Scouts with her — and she picked up a few more at her new post.

Sixteen years later, in her second year at Oak Forest, Cheeks relies on 15 troop leaders to help keep her five Girl Scout troops running. There are 90 girls participating this year — nine of whom are in high school — but Cheeks said she’s had around 175 girls in years past.

“We call it Lorenda’s baby,” said Carrie Johnson, a teacher’s assistant at Pecan Park Elementary who serves as one of Cheeks’ assistant troop leaders. “It amazes me that she finds the time to get it all together. I guess you could call her a miracle worker.”

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In addition to her responsibilities as a school principal, Cheeks is also taking classes at Delta State and is currently writing her dissertation. Troop leaders meet once a month to discuss upcoming activities, and they hold a planning session during the summer to plan the year ahead.

Cookie sales require a great deal of time and energy, and then there are the twice-yearly campouts. Cheeks will take her girls to Camp Wahi, the Girl Scout camp in Brandon, as well as one other camp like Yogi Bear on the Lake in Pelahatchie or Camp Wesley Pines in Gallman.

“At the camps, I like to introduce the girls to something they wouldn’t ordinarily get to do at home like archery, horseback riding or canoeing,” Cheeks said.

Perhaps the most important parts of the campouts are the team-building exercises. Cheeks has seen girls who are at first quiet and shy blossom into confident leaders in their troops and schools.

Girls like Christen McQuitter, a freshman at Terry High School. McQuitter has been a Girl Scout under Cheeks for about 10 years and has gone from being shy and quiet to being the first one to introduce herself to a new Girl Scout.

“(Cheeks) has taught me how to not get so mad easy, and she’s taught me how to not get an attitude with people, and she’s taught me how to make myself a better person by helping others out,” McQuitter said.

Many have gone on to lead cheerleader or dance squads, serve as student government presidents and compete in high school pageants. McQuitter plans to one day become a Girl Scout troop leader.

“I tell everyone that girls need that girl time,” Johnson said. “I see so many girls without a positive role model in their lives.”

Cheeks feels that her confidence and self-esteem came largely from growing up in a two-parent home; but she recognizes that not all girls are that lucky. For her, that’s where Girl Scouts comes in.

“Take the three principles that Girl Scouts relies on: building courage, confidence and character,” she said. “There’s a real need to build girls’ self-esteem, their confidence and their character.

“I think you’re cementing that bond for girls. And the parents we’re helping are looking for resources as well.”