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The Cookie Champ

Courtlyn Bales-Hall, 13, has defined herself through Girl Scouts. It's taught her she can do anything.



Courtlyn Bales-Hall, right, sells Girl Scout cookies with Emma Callahan, middle, and Jessica Berger, left, Feb. 15 at McAlister’s Deli. The girls often do booth sales during the cookie season, which is January through March. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

This Girl Scout knows you, knows what you’ve been waiting for – dreaming about – all year.

Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs. Every Girl Scout cookie is only available in Bloomington during the deliciously sacred January-to-March cookie season.

She’s outside your door, order sheet in hand. She’s next to you in line at the store, ready to run back to her car and sell you the extra boxes she keeps there. She’s even at a booth on a Friday night in McAlister’s Deli when you’re trying to pick up a sandwich for dinner.

She’s got a spreadsheet about eight pages long filled with the names of her regulars. She has a webpage where you can buy her cookies with a click.

Courtlyn Bales-Hall is everywhere.

She once sold 3,000 boxes. You cannot stop her from meeting her goals.

The 13-year-old knows you want to buy her cookies, and she’s got answers for your every excuse.

Diet restrictions? Try the gluten-free Toffee-tastics or vegan Thin Mints. Diabetic or wanting to lose weight? Donate a box to soldiers. Don’t have cash? She takes card.

Already bought cookies?

“Thank you for supporting Girl Scouts,” Courtlyn will tell you, and she will mean it.

***

The first Girl Scouts began selling cookies in 1917, five years after they were founded by Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low.

It can almost seem quaint now, but behind the ritual is evidence that what it means to be a girl — and what it means to be a Scout — is constantly changing.

In the early days, Girl Scouts defied stereotypes like the notion that they shouldn’t play sports. Low built a basketball court and hid it behind curtains so no one would see the girls playing in their bloomers.

The issues the Girl Scouts of the United States of America tackles have evolved over time, as have the methods.

Some of the cookie sales take place online, and badges have evolved to include more STEM-related skills, including cyber security and robot design.

Through it all, the core message has remained the same: A girl can do anything she wants.

Courtlyn hopes to become a geneticist, but she also loves English and social studies and tolerates her advanced math class at Jackson Creek Middle School. She plays viola, participates in her church’s youth group and takes dance lessons on Monday nights. Her biggest fans are her two moms.

She’s got the wild curls of Merida from Pixar’s “Brave” and, like the character, knows she doesn’t need anyone to save her.

Girl Scouts has helped teach her that.

Bales-Hall fidgets with her hair between songs March 5 in the University Elementary School cafetorium during the Monroe County Girl Scout Song Fest. Dozens of girls came to the school to learn camp songs while sitting around an inflatable campfire. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

Courtlyn’s destiny was always intertwined with the Girl Scouts.

Her moms were gifted a onesie that said “Future Girl Scout” before their daughter was born. When Courtlyn was a toddler, she modeled in a T-shirt bearing those same words in a publication for her local Girl Scout council.

She became an entry-level Daisy as a 5-year-old kindergartener, the earliest she was allowed to join.

Her troop number is 03134.

One of Courtlyn’s moms, Holly Bales-Hall, has a lifetime membership with the Girl Scouts, and her other mom, Kareston Hall, was also in a troop as a girl. Holly is now Troop Leader of 03134, and Kareston is in charge of cookies.

There was little doubt that Courtlyn would join Girl Scouts.

“She kind of didn’t really get a choice,” Holly said.

Courtlyn’s moms say she could leave any time she wanted to, but she said she stays because she loves helping her community.

“I think I would have found it somehow even if I wasn’t born into it,” Courtlyn said.

Courtlyn uses a designated green pen as she plans out her calendars and marks Girl Scout-related activities. She tries to schedule everything else around those green marks.

When Courtlyn goes into her closet to get dressed in the morning, the first thing she looks at is her Girl Scout vest filled with the patches representing her experiences at the Cadette level, from learning about archery to media.

She then opens the drawer filled with supplies to tame her hair and sees her pins and buttons — like the one that says "Ask me about Girl Scout Cookies” — that she doesn’t keep on her uniform.

There’s usually a flier on the fridge for an upcoming Scouts event when she walks into the kitchen.

And every year around this time, her living room is swallowed up by thousands of boxes of cookies.

***

Consistently one of the top sellers in Bloomington, Courtlyn has made a name for herself as a cookie champ.

The second-highest seller in her troop is near 300 boxes, Kareston says. Other girls say they aim to sell 100, maybe 200.

Her goal was 1,000 this year because she didn’t feel like she’d have as much time to sell. She’s about 600 boxes over that.

Courtlyn sold more than 1,000 boxes her first year. She was 5.

Though cookie-peddling methods have changed over the years to social media pitches and phone calls, she prefers to connect with people face-to-face.

As her customer base grew, she also started a spreadsheet with their names, their cookie preferences and even what pets they own.

She remembers the little details, like one neighbor who always keeps cash and her checkbook near the front door in January and February for when Courtlyn comes by with the cookie order sheet.

Even when it’s cold, she’ll go door to door — in fact, she earned a patch for bundling up and selling to her neighbors during the 2014 Polar Vortex.

A bag of Girl Scout cookies sits on a table Feb. 19 at the Veterns of Foreign Wars post in Bloomington. Courtlyn Bales-Hall puts some boxes of preordered cookies in bags to be delivered. Lydia Gerike Buy Photos

Courtlyn grips a polka-dotted, strawberry pink tote bag Feb. 19 at the American Legion post in Bloomington, peering through the doorway of the bar her mom just went into.

As a young girl, she sticks out in the veterans’ gathering place, but she also manages to fit in subtle ways.

She’s in uniform, something many of the people there know well. Except hers isn’t military, just a khaki vest.

She's here to drop off some preorders and to try to sell more out of the tote, one of a collection of bags she and her moms carry almost everywhere. They try to keep it stocked with more than 30 boxes for every cookie need.

Holly comes in and out through the doorway as more people give their orders. Courtlyn, being 13, can’t enter the bar. She readies the bag.

Her mom needs Thin Mints, Samoas and the lemon-flavored Savannah Smiles. No wait – they're out of the lemon ones.

The two pass boxes back and forth with the comfortable rhythm of people who have done this thousands of times before.

***

Courtlyn and her moms think the Girl Scouts get a bad rap as an organization where girls don’t do much more than sing songs and pile glitter onto crafts.

They do those kinds of activities sometimes, but the family says it’s just a small part of what the Girl Scouts really teaches its members.

Girls are encouraged to live an active outdoor lifestyle, and many troops camp together at designated campsites.

The leaders for Holly’s childhood troop taught their members domestic skills like how to cook, but they also encouraged the girls’ talents.

Holly remembers her leaders letting her take charge when the troop would sing songs, which she feels eventually helped encourage her to pursue her vocal performance degree at the Jacobs School of Music.

Kareston’s experience was a little more traditional.

Her troop was more likely to make gift baskets for the elderly and focus on women’s domestic roles.

She does remember throwing a hatchet once, though.

Bales-Hall leads a demonstration on hand gestures for one of the Girl Scout campfire songs March 5 in the University Elementary School cafetorium. She was helped by other members of her troupe, including one of her moms, Holly Bales-Hall. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

Dozens of young girls come together March 5 in the University Elementary School cafetorium.

Some of the elementary schoolers are wearing too-big Brownie vests and trying their best to follow along as Courtlyn, Holly and three other members of troop 03134 teach them camp songs.`

They gather around an inflatable campfire. It’s not exactly the real thing, but the Monroe County Girl Scout Song Fest is a chance for young girls to experience what camp might be like.

Courtlyn often takes the lead, singing just a little louder than the other Cadettes.

The young girls listen closely, watching her show them the little dances and copying her every move.

Holly encourages them to come close without taking up too much space for the other girls around them.

“There’s room for everyone in Girl Scouts,” she says.

***

From the beginning, the Scouts were different, a chance for girls to try new experiences.

It stood out from most segregated organizations of its time. Local groups sometimes included girls of different abilities and ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a Girl Scout website archive.

Girl Scouts helped with war efforts during World War II. They grew Victory Gardens and sponsored programs that taught survival skills to women.

In 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. noticed the way the Girl Scouts pushed for integration of the troops, and the Smithsonian Magazine says he called them “a force for desegregation.”

The Scouts welcomes transgender members.

When one Bloomington troop says the Girl Scout Promise, it pledges to “the world and its people” instead of “God and my country.”

Courtlyn practices her sewing skills by putting new patches on her vest, but she also knows how to cook over a fire when her troop goes camping. At camp, even though she doesn’t love heights, she once gave ziplining a try. Now she asks to do it every time.

With Girl Scouts, she can grow without fear.

“I have the opportunity to just be,” Courtlyn says.

Girls in Courtlyn’s generation are the new Girl Scout, but they are also every Girl Scout. No matter what era, they’re ready to test the boundaries society has set for them.

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