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GAs from eight decades celebrate 100th anniversary in eight locations

By Barbara Denman

October 28, 2013


JACKSONVILLE—Candle-lit cupcakes, face painting, missionaries and remembrances from the past ten decades were all ingredients in the 100th Birthday Celebration of Girls in Action (GA) Oct. 5. But the overarching theme of the centennial observance was a renewed commitment to instill a heart for missions in future generations.

The event was a time of “doing the things we love to do while worshipping God and telling the world what GAs are,” said Caroline Gervais, 11, of Salt Springs.

“I was able to spend time with my friends and GAs from other churches,” said the sixth grader, while listening to GAs from past generations “share their testimonies of how they served the Lord” through missions.

Begun in 1913, GA is a missions discipleship organization for girls in first through sixth grades, sponsored by the Woman’s Missionary Union, auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention. Through GA, girls learn about, pray for, give to and do missions. In the state, 300 Florida Baptist churches have a GA program.

Held simultaneously in eight locations, the anniversary celebration in Florida drew 700 GAs, former GAs and mission leaders, some representing eight decades of missions involvement. Girls and women gathered in Crestview, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Melbourne, Anthony, Tampa, Palm Springs and Key West—where only former GAs attended to remember their childhood GA experiences.  The groups in each location connected with other groups through Skype.

The celebration was intended to give former GAs an opportunity to “celebrate and tell their story,” said Jill Cumbo, associate team strategist of the Florida Baptist Convention’s Women’s Missions and Ministries/Missions Education team.

“It is important to increase missions awareness in Florida which helps ensure that missions education organizations like Girls in Action will continue into the future,” she explained. “These parties were held to engage girls of all ages, to create memories and build passion to cultivate into missions-minded people.”

All of the activities at the celebration contributed to mission education, such as creating a card to send to a missionary that shares the same birthday, dressing up in a period costume of missionaries from long ago, or repeating Bible verse and core mission values. Many of the women shared their own stories about being a GA and displayed their regalia and memorabilia.

And what is a birthday party without gifts? Those in attendance brought a bevy of birthday gifts for girls at the Florida Baptist Children Homes. “What a great example of what GA's is all about—serving and focusing on the needs of others,” said Julie Boyd,  vice president of church relations for the Florida Baptist Children's Homes, who attended the Melbourne event to receive the gifts.

“The children who live on our campuses across the state will know that they are loved and cared for because a GA remembered them on their birthday.” 

Memories from past decades

Many of the former GAs recalled the time when they memorized scripture and Baptist facts and participated in missions activities to accomplish levels of recognition, including Princess, Queen and Queen Regent.

Among those was Mary Ellen Marino of Crestview, who exhibited a cape and scepter she wore as a Queen Regent, a map of the world she cross stitched and other ministry projects she completed to achieve her steps. She discovered the items packed away in boxes when her mother died, every treasured memory intact.    

Betty Utz of Laurel Hill read about the celebration in the newspaper and wanted to make sure she attended the celebration at First Baptist Church in Crestview. The 80-year-old began GA as an eight-year-old and always “loved, loved, loved” the organization, she said.

The summer camping program has long been a special part of the GA organization, reinforcing weekly meetings at church with a potential life-changing investment in week-long mission activities.

Tapped as a GA camp counselor at the age of 16, Utz traveled across the state to lead camps under the direction of former Camp director Elizabeth Provence, who served Florida Baptists from 1943-46, to make the camping program accessible to girls in every location, she said.

Her participation at the event was especially meaningful to Anne Wilson, director of Camp WorldLight, formerly GA camp, who had heard of Provence since joining the camp staff in 1994 and the challenges involved in moving the camp every couple of weeks across the state. 

“It was so amazing to hear Ms. Betty talk about how serving on camp staff changed her life and gave her a heart for missions.  She was obviously nostalgic about those days and what it meant to her to be a part of GA Camp with Lib Provence.”

For several of those attending the 100th anniversary, the celebration crossed generational lines.

Betty Yon, 80, was a member of Sunbeams (for preschoolers) and GAs as a child and continues to instill a missions commitment in others as a GA leader at Palm Springs Baptist Church. At the 100th birthday celebration held at her church, three generations of her family represented a testimony to her passion for missions—including her daughter, Leslie Kubeck and granddaughter, Kathryn, a fourth grader.

“What we learned about missions as a GA is something you never forget,” said the grandmother, “meeting missionaries at GA camp at Lake Yale, getting excited talking to them and hearing about how they share Jesus in a world faraway.”   

The organization is still important because missions is indicative of a life committed to Christ, she said. “GAs learn about verses in Scripture and how other people live in others parts of the world, how others tell them about Jesus, as well as how blessed we are to live in the United States. It has been a big part of my life.”

Jacksonville sisters Helen Hession and Delores Denmark reminisced about their GA experiences at Macedonia Baptist Church, which hosted the area celebration, in the 50’s. “We were taught missionary stories and our teacher Mrs. Hamilton made you feel like you were right there,” recalled Hession.

“I still remember the Bible verses, the Beatitudes and the steps we had to learn,” added Denmark. “We attended the associational and state convention meetings and went to nursing homes to minister.”

Life-altering experiences

As another proof of the organization’s impacts, testimonies of missionaries and women serving in ministry today often include a reference to the impact GA and Acteens—the sister organization for older girls--had on the direction of their lives as adults and their service for the Lord.

In attending the Melbourne meeting, Boyd from the Children’s Homes celebrated her own missions heritage as a Sunbeam, GA and Acteen, as well as serving as GA camp counselor at Lake Yale for six years in the 70's.

“Once a GA always a GA,” Boyd said. “It's just in my blood!  My GA group was a loud and hyper group of girls, and I am sure our GA leader felt like quitting every Wednesday night,” she joked.

“But, because of her every week I fell more in love with missions! I understood what the Great Commission was all about through powerful missionary stories, hands on mission action projects and a week at GA camp every summer. I would not be where I am today if it weren't for GAs.”

Even after 100 years, the GA program still has purpose for girls like Caroline, fifth grader Brittany Joiner of Jacksonville, who joined the 100th celebration because she likes participating in mission activities and “learning about missionary and missionary kids,” and hundreds of others who participated.  

Cumbo reported that after the celebration, several persons expressed a commitment to begin a GA group in their church. 

 “This organization had value in 1913 and still has value today,” said Cumbo. “Who would not want a girl to be given the opportunity to learn that God loves her, God loves all the people of the world, and that she can play a role in people knowing about God?” she asked.

“Through this missions discipleship organization, girls learn about missions.  As we learned from many of the women attending the celebrations, these instilled values will be with them for the rest of their lives.” 

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