Salvation Army Sunbeams program connects, empowers girls
Carla Brandt believes the fellowship and skills learned in The Salvation Army’s troop program have the power to change the lives of young girls in communities throughout the country.
Brandt, a troop leader in Montana, has seen firsthand how young girls gain confidence, empathy and empowerment through the life skills they learn in their Sunbeams Troops, a program for girls in elementary school.
“It provides them with that fellowship and encouragement to grow in all ways—spiritually, mentally, physically and socially,” said Brandt, who has been a troop leader since the 1970s. “No matter what is happening with these kids in their lives, many of them need a second chance. They mostly need someone to really encourage them.”
The program was founded in 1921 as an offshoot of Girl Guards, which focuses on girls in middle and high school. Members do not have to be part of a local Salvation Army corps to join a troop.
“We bring in girls from all over the community,” said Krystina Macias, Salvation Army Western Territory Christian Education Director for Outreach. “For some of the girls in Sunbeams, they might not be learning all of these things at home. It becomes a place where they can learn where they came from and who they are.”
Similar to Girl Scouts, Sunbeams brings girls of similar ages together in local troops and teaches them life skills as they pursue emblems they can attach to their Sunbeam sash. These emblems cover a variety of skills such as swimming, cooking, patriotism and drug awareness.
Troop leaders aim to balance the types of emblems their girls are earning, alternating between fun badges, like singing and artist, with more serious or practical ones, such as first aid and personal health.
Each emblem has a list of criteria the girls must check off, some of which are more enjoyable than others. For example, the first aid badge had some drawn out sections, according to Prescott, Arizona, troop leader Shoana Heineman. That’s where the interactive parts of the badge work comes in.
“Then you hand them this big tub of materials and say, ‘Now you get to make this first aid kit and we’re going to practice,’” Heineman said. “Their faces light up. They think, ‘Now I’ve learned all this stuff and I get to test it on my friend and use all these supplies.’”
The troop structure also helps teach acceptance and introduces girls to other kids who might come from different backgrounds and lifestyles than they do, Heineman said.
A few years ago, one of the girls in Heineman’s troop had Down Syndrome. The children, Heineman found, were welcoming and caring toward their fellow troop member. They voted her to be Mary in the troop’s Christmas play.
“We teach them that everybody is created equally,” Heineman said. “I think it does bridge that gap of acceptance.”
Sunbeams also prepares the girls for serious topics they might come across outside of the troop, such as drug awareness. And all lessons are done within a context of faith and God’s love for the world.
“This program takes little girls and molds them into young women,” Heineman said. “It helps them to develop a love for God, a love for their country, and a love for each other in ways that I don’t think they would get out of just going to school or playing soccer.”
While girls can earn up to two emblems a month, they can also choose to pursue high awards that involve a rigorous application and interview process.
Nearly 3,500 girls in the Western Territory have earned the distinguished Commissioner’s Sunbeam Award since its inception, Macias said.
And recently, multiple generations came together at a first-ever Sunbeams gala to honor girls, past and present, who achieved the prestigious award as the Sunbeams program nears its 100th birthday.
“To gather them together and hear them tell their stories of their own Sunbeam experience is a special thing,” Macias said.
Whether they were able to attend the gala or not, earning the esteemed award helps girls build self confidence and see the value of achievement, Brandt said.
“It shows them you can get through this, you can do this, and you are important,” Brandt said. “To watch their faces as they receive that award and to see the smiles as they realize what they’ve accomplished is just amazing.”
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