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Lexington triplets, now grown, credit Girls Scouts experience with foundation that shaped their lives

Nora Denning, Anna Overmann and Jeanna Panella at the end of Junior Girl Scouts years in 1999. (Photo provided)

By Kim Kobersmith
Special to KyFoward

Triplets Nora Denning, Anna Overmann and Jeanna Panella have more than fond memories of their time as Girl Scouts of Kentucky’s Wilderness Road. Steeped in experiential learning, leadership opportunities, and activities with a diverse range of girls, they attribute their formative time in scouts with their self-confidence, the ability to work with others, and a life-long love of nature.

The sisters grew up in a Lexington troop led by their mom, Jill Heink, from kindergarten through high school. “Girl Scouts really pushes you to the edge of what your comfort might be,” Nora says about all of the new things she tried in the troop.

The girls hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2006. (Photo provided)

One new activity that stands out is sailing, which they practiced at both Cave Run Lake and Jacobsen Park. “The adults gave us some basic training, then sent us out in boats,” she says. “There was a real willingness from them to step back, and trust that if we made a mistake it could be fixed. We learned things by testing it out, and it gave me a real sense of efficacy.”

And they did make mistakes. Nora remembers the time she capsized her boat on the lake at summer camp. It was discouraging at first, but then she learned there was a fun tradition where anyone who capsized a boat at the camp got to sign a plaque. It reminded her that she wasn’t alone, and that making mistakes is part of the learning process.

From organizing a trip to Canada to coordinating the renovation of a local community playground, Girl Scouts forced the girls to take leadership roles at a young age and learn how to take initiative. Jeanna remembers serving on the Council’s leadership board made up of girls throughout Kentucky. They worked together to plan yearly high adventure weekends where one of the favorite activities was rappelling. “We were a diverse group of girls from across the state,” she says. “It was helpful to see everyone’s different perspectives.”

The three had an outdoor-centric Girl Scouting experience. From hiking to sailing lessons and running 5Ks, the girls had expansive new experiences that left a lifelong passion for outdoor adventures. They are grateful for the foundations they learned in their troop, the “nitty-gritty outdoor skills,” like cooking in a Dutch oven on a campfire, orienteering, knot tying, and backwoods first aid.

Jeanna cooking at a campout in 1999 (Photo provided)

Camping was a huge part of their experience. They went on weekend trips and to Girl Scout camps. Once a year, their mom would coordinate a campout with all of the scouts from their school from kindergarten to high school. The triplets participated in day camp every summer and attended sleepaway camp regularly.

As adults, they have continued adventurous lives. Jeanna and Anna joined the crew team in college together, a new sport for both of them. Anna, alone, hiked El Camino de Santiago, a Medieval-era pilgrimage long trail in Spain. Jeanna is excited about the sleeping bags Aunt Nora gave her kids this year – her family is planning a car camping adventure this summer.

Part of the Girl Scout Law reads, “be a sister to every Girl Scout,” and for these sisters it was more than just a saying – even beyond their family ties. Girl Scouts played a vital role as an organization that fosters cooperation instead of competition. “At meetings, we would recite the Law and get the feeling that these were our sisters, even though we might not get along with them all of the time,” says Jeanna. “We had a shared experience, shared values, and we were all in this together.”

As the three reminisce about their experiences, Nora remembered their troop cooking an elaborate breakfast for the Cattlemen’s Association. “We had to figure out how to do it together,” she says. “Our time in Girl Scouts was about doing things that are story-worthy, and sharing that with other people.”

The girls working a Promise to Vote event with their troop. (Photo provided)

Not all the troop’s new experiences were adventurous. Selling Girl Scout cookies and asking community members to sign a voting pledge were challenging in a different way. The women recall being uncomfortable cold calling neighbors to buy cookies. The practice of handling rejection at a young age trained them to think of ways to approach people with different backgrounds.

As inspiring young women, Nora, Anna, and Jeanna have pursued their unique professional interests. Anna lives in Lexington and is a fourth-year medical student at UK. She received her Master’s in Zoology from Washington State University and worked in Pediatric Endocrine research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital before entering medical school. Nora lives in Cincinnati and teaches Latin at St. Xavier High School. She plays bluegrass with White Line Fever and is currently performing with the all-female bluegrass group Ma Crow & Co. Jeanna lives in Hudson, OH and works as a PV (PhotoVoltaic) Performance Engineer for First Solar, Inc.

Jeanna, Anna, and Nora all achieved their Girl Scout Gold Awards and view Girl Scouts as a ‘lifetime deal’. Both Jeanna and Anna are mothers of young girls. “I am hopeful my daughter will want to be a Girl Scout,” says Anna. “I want to take her to camp, and tell her the stories about myself and her crazy aunts when we were young.”

Kim Kobersmith is a freelance writer and photographer from Berea.

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