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Girl Scouts go the distance

Other teenagers were likely sleeping in, mall shopping or working part time to earn extra money. But a group of Girl Scouts chose a more "challenging" way to spend their summer days.

About a dozen Cadettes and Senior Girl Scouts participated in a two-week challenge course last month at Camp Dorothy Thomas in Riverview. Tampa Bay area Scouts ages 11 to 17 signed up for the annual summer challenge in teamwork.

It is the only camp of its kind in the state. Other Girl Scout camps may offer laid-back activities like horseback riding or swimming. But teens who brave Camp Dorothy Thomas face a physical and mental feat.

By 7:30 each morning, they were standing at attention and saluting during the mandatory flag ceremony. Then they ate breakfast, preparing themselves for the mental and physical adventure ahead.

Part of the challenge was learning to put differences aside for the team's sake.

"You have to expect tension if you're staying with the same people for two weeks," said 13-year-old Kiahhn' Jackson, who has been a challenger for three summers. "But you also have to remember to keep the tension in the cabin."

An obstacle course of risky hurdles tested their trust for each other. If the challengers touched the string that doubled as a nuclear wall or fell in the "acid" sand, they were dead. They could start the obstacle course over and gain a second chance at life, but no one wanted to bear the burden of letting their teammates down.

"It took them days, but they did it," said Laura Wellborn, one of the facilitators. "Their progress is unbelievable, they're really taking care of each other."

Still, they had much more to do.

The wooden climbing wall, standing more than 30-feet high, was a favorite. Once the challengers reached the top they could get down via zip line or they could climb down. Most girls chose the zip, a rope with two handles that helped them swing to the ground.

Whether they w+ere newcomers or veterans back for more, the girls didn't know what they were in store for. Rain _ and a lot of it.

"It made the course harder" said Kathleen Krewer, 15, a first-year challenger. "We were soaked."

Their last adventure was the Burma bridge, very similar to the tightrope walk. The girls had to protect and spot each other, so teamwork was critical.

"I've really seen a difference with how they deal with problems," Wellborn said. "They're finally starting to think outside the box and that will make a huge difference on how they deal with real life problems."

Girl Scout leaders plan to add challenge course programs to other summer camps, hoping to duplicate the success in Riverview.

As for this summer's challenger group, there were no regrets.

"It was much better than I thought it would be," said Krewer. "I got to meet a lot of real cool people."

_ Ruba Uri can be reached at 661-2439 or