A badge of honour to lead Girl Guides unit

As a child growing up in England, Natasha Montesalvo loved being a Girl Guide. For the past seven years, the 31-year-old has volunteered and led one of the Brisbane units for Girl Guides Queensland. Her goal: to empower girls to become confident community members and leaders. Natasha says the guiding movement is more vibrant and relevant than ever for girls.

Guiding women: Natasha Montesalvo, second from right, at a recent Girl Guides Queensland Super Women event. These events empower other women in the community and demonstrate the relevance of Girl Guides in today’s world.

How did you get involved with Girl Guides Queensland?

I’m basically a lifer. I started in Rainbows as a five-year-old girl in the UK and then went through to Brownies and Guides. When you turn 18 or just before, you can work towards your leadership qualification.

On my 18th birthday, I became a qualified Guide leader. I then worked with different age groups and at various units during university and helped out where I could.

I came to Australia 10 years ago to further my studies, and I wasn’t involved in guiding for the first 18 months I was over here. At the time, I couldn’t get to Guides due to my work commitments. I really missed it. Guiding is a part of my life, and it has given me so many opportunities. As soon as I got a full-time position and knew I could commit to a single night a week, I strolled down to my local Girl Guide unit and signed on to become a leader. I’ve been at the Jindalee unit in Brisbane’s western suburbs for seven years now. I love it!

What’s the question you get asked the most about Girl Guides?

It’s always: “Do Girl Guides still exist?” Many people think we’re long gone. In fact, we’re starting to sing from the rooftops that we do exist, we’re amazing, and we offer girls incredible experiences.

What sorts of activities do you do with the girls?

We have a diverse program. Girl Guides is built around the seven fundamentals of Robert and Agnes Baden-Powell’s philosophy: promise and law, outdoors, world guiding, guiding traditions, patrol system, leadership skills and service. We try to make sure our program reflects all those different elements during the term. But the way that we do this is flexible and always girl-led.

My unit has girls aged 6-10, and we get them to give us ideas about what they want to do during the term. We then devise an activity each week around what they want to do and try and tie it in with the different fundamentals.

For example, on our first day back from the autumn holidays, we always bake biscuits for Anzac Day. The girls work in their patrols to make as many biscuits as they can. They are avid bakers, and we hand those biscuits out at our local march. This is a tradition we’ve been doing for the past five years. We go down to the march early in the morning and give a homemade Anzac biscuit to the veterans and other people attending. The girls and community love it. This activity reflects the patrol systems and service fundamentals.

The service fundamental is an essential part of guiding as the girls promise to support their community and Australia. This is something that’s so often missing in society these days as we tend to focus on ourselves. Girl Guides promotes a broader mindset – thinking about other people and how we can support others in the community – which is so important.

How has Girl Guides changed in recent years and how, as a volunteer, do you make it relevant in a competitive environment when girls have so many choices for activities?

It’s a tough one, and it would be fair to say we lost our way for a bit. But we have certainly come back to being more relevant today than we’ve been in a long time.

For example, there are very current programs around now like “Guide Your Money” which teaches kids aged 7-12 about financial literacy, and a governance course for young women to get them ready to be future board members.

Girl Guides is also a way to combat some of the technology addictions among the digital natives. More and more parents look to Guides as an opportunity to get away from that. However, in saying that, we do thread technology constructively through some of our activities. For example, the girls will give presentations on activities they have completed, and we do learn traditional skills from YouTube videos; for instance, knotting.

We integrate different styles of technology through the program. But we also give girls lots of opportunities to do things other than being on their devices. More importantly, it’s the underlying skills that make Girl Guides so relevant today. In my “real job”, we do a lot of work with businesses

other people and how we can support others in the community – which is so important.

How has Girl Guides changed in recent years and how, as a volunteer, do you make it relevant in a competitive environment when girls have so many choices for activities?

It’s a tough one, and it would be fair to say we lost our way for a bit. But we have certainly come back to being more relevant today than we’ve been in a long time.

For example, there are very current programs around now like “Guide Your Money” which teaches kids aged 7-12 about financial literacy, and a governance course for young women to get them ready to be future board members.

Girl Guides is also a way to combat some of the technology addictions among the digital natives. More and more parents look to Guides as an opportunity to get away from that. However, in saying that, we do thread technology constructively through some of our activities. For example, the girls will give presentations on activities they have completed, and we do learn traditional skills from YouTube videos; for instance, knotting.

We integrate different styles of technology through the program. But we also give girls lots of opportunities to do things other than being on their devices.

More importantly, it’s the underlying skills that make Girl Guides so relevant today. In my “real job”, we do a lot of work with businesses across the tourism industry, and recently we were involved in researching future skill requirements.

We’re finding business owners are identifying several skills that are needed such as leadership, teamwork, problem solving and critical thinking. These are all skills that are deeply embedded in guiding. All the team-building activities we do in our patrols and across the unit teach the girls to work together and develop their leadership skills. We present them with problems and challenges that they work together to overcome.

Girl Guides provides girls with an opportunity to utilise those creative thinking, teamwork and leadership skills. They do not often get to develop these across school, sport and other activities.

What’s a typical night like for you?

There’s no such thing as a typical night in Guides! It’s very diverse. Recently we had our break up before the holidays, and we did craft and Easter activities. They were decorating biscuits and turning paddle pop sticks into bunny rabbits. They worked in small groups of six, which we call patrols. As leaders, we tend to be hands off. We set the challenge, explain what they have to do and then the girls work amongst themselves to achieve those goals. We might give hints along the way, but mainly the idea is they take care of themselves. There are also many outdoor activities like canoeing, archery and camping. We also get the girls involved in community activities like Clean Up Australia Day, and we do ‘chalk chases’ which the girls enjoy. They come up with a symbol, and one group sets off and draws symbols around the local area, and the others have to follow the trail. Then they swap over, and the group that was leading follow the

path. From this, they develop traditional guiding skills such as orienteering. The joy of Guides is that no two nights are the same!

What about weekend events?

Our unit tries to do two overnight camps a year with one or two nights away. At the beginning of the year, we organise an indoor camp. This is because it’s often the girls’ first night away from their parents and we want them to feel comfortable with us and build their resilience. This experience gives them the idea of what being away from their parents is like and lets them experience a camp atmosphere and the routines that go with being on camp. Later in the year, we might do an outdoor camp in tents. It’s amazing to watch the girls grow as they go through these experiences.

Is badge earning still a critical component of Girl Guides?

We still do badges, and there are many different types that they can do. The ‘create a badge’ is very open to interpretation. It offers them a chance to challenge themselves in a way that interests them. For example, they can do their air badge. This could take the form of learning about the atmosphere, doing something with balloons, examining the respiratory system or even demonstrating and teaching the other members how to do CPR. It’s all about personal challenges.

There are also syllabus-based badges which have defined challenges that the girls have to do. And then there are the peak achievement badges: the BP, Junior BP and Queens Guide award. These are the highest achievements that they can obtain and require commitment, resilience and the opportunity to take on challenges that extend them beyond their comfort zone. Badges aren’t a “must do”, they are an extra part of the experience that some girls love, and others do not participate in.

You have a PhD in tourism, and you have a busy job as a policy and research manager with the Queensland Tourism Industry Research Council. How do you make time for Girl Guides?

Guiding is a part of my life that I will always make time for. When I was interviewed for my current role, I made it clear that I’m involved with Girl Guides. I negotiated my work start and finish times so I could get there on time. Of course, there are times when I travel interstate or run regional workshops, and I have to miss out. But I have supportive parents in the unit, and they will come along and assist the other leader when I’m not there.

What fundraising events do you organise?

Our biggest fundraising event is around our biscuits. We conduct door-to-door sales with the girls or hold stalls at Bunnings and places like that to sell them to the community.

We also organise a lot of other fundraising and advocacy events with different charities that align with Girl Guides’ traditional values. We have something called the State Good Turn where every unit in the state works towards benefiting the same cause. Last year we focused on the Great Barrier Reef. We taught the girls about the reef, and the impact climate change was having up there. We used nine-year-old Molly Steer as a role model. She is a young girl who stopped plastic straw usage at businesses in Cairns with her Straw No More campaign. So, the girls went and campaigned for their various schools to stop using plastic straws. We later ran a quiz

night for family and friends who came along and donated funds for that cause.

We also create leadership events for Girl Guide leaders and other women called Super Women events to share knowledge with other women in our community and demonstrate the role of guiding in the community for adults. For Queensland Women’s Week, we ran a leadership program looking at women and finance. We had a panel featuring a superannuation specialist, an HR manager, an accountant and an entrepreneur who had started her own business around women and digital technology. These women shared their insights to the female audience in how to supercharge their finances and what women can do to make the most of their superannuation.

All of these events for women are great as they showcase what we do for adults and also explain about volunteering with Girl Guides.

What does the fundraising allow Girl Guides to do?

Fundraising provides us with an opportunity to help reduce costs associated with Girl Guides and take the girls places. We always heavily subsidise our camps based on the fundraising we do throughout the year. That means we get to take them away and when we do, it’s easily affordable and accessible to all.

Have you developed new skills as a result of your work with Girl Guides?

I’m now the regional manager for Girl Guides Queensland, and the reason I took this on is that the organisation that I work for has a very flat structure, and I don’t get the opportunity to lead people. I know I will want to move into a different position eventually, so I needed to develop my skills around management and leadership to make sure when I do the transition in the workplace I’ve got the right set of skills required to take me to the next level in management.

Being the regional manager has been really useful from that perspective. But the skills I use every week with the girls have also been valuable – things like time management and resilience – as well as the ability to be flexible and adaptable in what I’m doing with the girls.

You can never quite tell how a group of 6-10s is going to react to an activity. So, we need to make sure that if they aren’t interested that we adapt it to an activity they will engage in and get value from.  While we know the girls well, it’s hard to tell with an activity we’re trying for the first time what their skill level is going to be. Being able to be flexible in the way we deliver that program to increase or decrease the challenge depending on their reactions is important, and that skill is very adaptable to the workforce as well.

What are Girl Guides’ greatest volunteer needs at the moment?

We’re doing really well with the numbers of girls (there are close to 600 Girl Guides in west Brisbane alone), but we need more adult leaders to come along and get involved. That’s probably the biggest challenge we’re facing. Quite a lot of areas have wait lists at the moment. If we had more volunteers, we would be able to offer more of these girls a place!

What are the benefits of volunteering?

There are many benefits. No matter how terrible my day has been at work, when I arrive at Guides and these six, seven and eight-year-old kids come up and start telling me the most random stories about their day I can’t help but forget everything else that has happened. I smile, laugh and enjoy the moment.  

Volunteering has helped me develop new skills, and it has also been satisfying to see the personal growth of the girls I’ve worked with over the years. That shines through like nothing else. We have girls who come in attached to their mum’s legs who won’t say boo to a goose. Two months of Guides and they’re the loudest girls in the room. It makes me so happy watching them grow into confident young women, and you just know they’re going to do incredible things in their life. The development of my own skills and the fun activities I get to participate in are just an added bonus!

How would you sell volunteering work to others thinking about it?

There are lots of opportunities in volunteering, and it opens doors. Girl Guides has introduced me to an incredible set of women, and I have a wide circle of friends because of it. I have a great friendship with the other volunteer leader for my unit, and we have a ton of fun together. That’s one reason I’ve stuck with my unit for the past seven years.

Companionship and a women’s network is an integral part of volunteering. For me, the diversity of what we do makes it so exciting from community service to cooking, crafting and orienteering. I’m terrible at a lot of it, but always have fun giving it a go with a great group of girls around me!

One last question: Are the Girl Guide biscuits as good as ever?

They are indeed. Last year we celebrated 60 years of selling biscuits nationally. We still sell our traditional vanilla flagship biscuit, and they’ve been joined in more recent years by our mini choc chip bite-sized biscuit and our gluten-free butter shortbread. To be honest, I’ve been known to “forget” I have some boxes in the car and have to buy and eat them myself! But shhh…don’t tell my husband!

Click on the link to find out more about Girl Guides Australia Queensland, including supporter activities, volunteer opportunities and events.