Fifth grade is a difficult time for girls in the best of circumstances; the first signs of puberty bring unsettling questions of gender and identity. It’s even tougher for kids like Liz Leigh-Wood, who can’t rely on their parents for support. When Leigh-Wood’s parents failed to get her the $5 physical exam required to participate in St. Helena, California’s softball little league, the stability she found in the sport was pulled out from under her. She showed up to practice in tears. Her coach, Art Finkelstein, pulled her aside to ask what was wrong. When she told him, he said, “Don’t worry; I’ll make sure you get to play.” And he did. To this day, the adult Liz Ortenburger (now married), doesn’t know what magic Finkelstein worked to sort out her problem. She just knows that he showed her for the first time she had a family outside her home.
This idea was reinforced by Marlene Ortenburger, Liz’s mother-in-law, who died in 2006. From early in her courtship with Kipp Ortenburger, Liz remembers sitting with his mom on the porch of her Cambria, California home after everyone had gone to bed, sharing a glass of wine and talking about life’s ups and downs. Marlene always found the silver lining, Liz says. “Because I came from a difficult family background, she taught me almost everything I know about what empathy and love and family really mean. … She had this great joy about her that was infectious, and I caught onto that. It’s stuck with me.”
Distill these two formative experiences, and you get the essence of Ortenburger’s philosophy for running Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada, which she became CEO of in September 2013. First, every girl must know that Girls Scouts offers a family-like support system outside the home; second, volunteers must get the opportunities and resources they need to make their jobs as easy and rewarding as possible.
To those ends, Ortenburger has focused on two initiatives. The first is the Super Troops model, which may best be described as crowd-sourcing Girl Scout troops. Rather than asking one or two parents to make the huge commitment of leading a troop for a year, Super Troops matches 50 to 100 girls in an area with as many volunteers as are interested in covering one or two evening meetings each. Volunteers can be parents, teachers, interested neighbors, community members, businesspeople — whoever has something to offer. A staff member coordinates the program, which Ortenburger says is up to 13 Super Troops now and expecting 20 by next year.
The second initiative is volunteer support — making sure the adults involved get as much attention and as many resources as the girls. “When people raise their hand, we want to make sure we have a suite of services to help them, to define their mission correctly and get them on the right path,” Ortenburger says.
This part has been challenging, she adds, because when she moved to Las Vegas to take the job there was widespread disgruntlement among troop leaders. She estimates she has a one-on-one conversation to trouble-shoot a problem every day, in addition to regular meetings and speaking engagements. Social media is also helping, and Ortenburger says she spends time regularly on each of the local Girl Scouts’ 36 Facebook pages.
On her two-year anniversary at the helm, she has some accomplishments to celebrate, notably being on track to meet her goal of 6,000 girls and 2,000 volunteers participating in Girls Scouts of Southern Nevada by her three-year anniversary. But hurdles remain. The 4,700 girls currently signed up represents only 1.7 percent of the eligible population — the lowest rate in the country.
“Our main goal is 20,000 girls by 2025,” Ortenburger says. “I’ve told the board that we can do this now, that we have the right pieces put in place, the right model of Super Troops combined with the traditional program. … It will take some work, but we’ll get there.”