“At first so many of the girls were terrified to even float on their backs,” remembers L. Sarah Shumway (BA ’11, MBA ’18), a volunteer leader of a Salt Lake City–based Girl Scout troop. “To now see them swimming laps and having fun while doing it is a transformation I’ll never forget.”
Swimming isn’t the only skill the teenage girls—all refugees—have mastered. They’ve also learned how to rock climb, kayak, set up tents, and start fires. They even beat out an all-boys troop in last year’s tug-of-war challenge at the Highland Games at Camp Loll in Wyoming. “They had a very strong connection to each other and were always together,” says camp counselor Abram Conner, who remembers the troop as quiet, polite, and respectful. “That unity is how they won the tug-of-war.”
Shumway, Stacey L. Unck (BA ’04), and a few friends were inspired to start the refugee troop by Saborn Va, a Cambodian refugee and BYU–Hawaii alum who came to America at age 6. A former Boy Scout himself, Va created a troop for refugee boys in 2008 and was amazed by the results. Many of his Scouts not only earned their Eagle Scout awards but went on to attend college.
With grants and funding from the state of Utah and the local police department, the women started the troop in 2019. The girls who joined range from age 12 to 18 and hail from seven different countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Kenya, Pakistan, Somalia, Nepal, and Afghanistan. Unique in their own ways, the girls find ways to bond over their differences. “They’ve made us a lot of food that’s way too spicy, and we’ve eaten a lot of noodles,” laughs Unck, the scoutmaster. “But otherwise they are just like any other group of teenage girls.”
The leaders say the impact on the individual girls has been striking. “It is the best feeling to point out to them, ‘Hey, you learned how to swim, you learned how to rappel, you camped in the wilderness without your phone for six days. You can do things that you never thought you could—like go to college or get your Eagle,’” says Shumway.
The impact goes both ways, says Unck: “My association with these Scouts has been a gift. I can honestly say that I leave every activity energized and a little lighter.”
Unck, who has no children of her own, likens her role as a scoutmaster to a verse in Isaiah: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord” (54:1). Unck says, “I know this scripture is about the children of Israel, but when I read it, I feel like the Lord is saying, ‘Look at all of the children I have given you, more than you could ever bear.’”