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Fun in the Girls' Brigade

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Queen's Award winner Claire Starr describes the fun, friendships and highlights of her 13 years in the 1st Aylesbury Company of the Girls' Brigade. Catering for 5 to 18 year-old girls, it meets in our community centre on Monday evenings from 6.15pm. If you know anyone who might be interested, show them Claire's story. For more information, contact Sarah Davidge via the church office on 01296 426526 or email sarahdavidge@hotmail.co.uk. Now over to Claire...

My mum encouraged me to join the Girls Brigade when the Captain at the time, Sue Ingram, told her that I would be taught how to lay a table. When, a couple of years later at the Girls Brigade's annual display, I read out the instructions for other girls to indeed, lay a table, my mum's dreams came true. However, in the 13 years I spent at the organisation, I learnt so much more.

My Monday evenings from the age of five, until I moved away to university at 18, were spent enjoying the company of other young girls and the leaders, joining in activities and making memories that will last me a lifetime.

Sessions were predominantly spent completing four badges: Education, Service, Spiritual and Physical. These covered a range of things from learning how to play badminton, to being taught how to wash up properly! The Service badge covered local issues and helping in the community whilst the Spiritual badge helped us to engage with Bible stories and encouraged attendance at church. Of course, as a few years have passed, the main badges have changed, but the foundations of the teaching still remain. This was all set in a safe and fun environment and helped friendships to be formed throughout.

Yet although I remember many of the things we covered on Monday nights, it is often the activities that took place outside the structured sessions of which I have the fondest memories. The yearly summer camps were one of my highlights of each year, going on several week long trips to Bournemouth or Liphook. My first camp to Bournemouth at the age of eight was terrifying. Being away from home for the first time was daunting, but by the time we had to come home I was ready to stay for at least a few more weeks. I still remember the cold church halls, the collection of sand at the bottom of our sleeping bags and the daily competition for who would have the neatest bed area, but loving every minute! Dancing in the freezing sea in Bournemouth singing 'The Sun has Got His Hat On' in the hail brings a smile to my face every time I think of it, just like the rest of the camps.

The fun continued with the district weekends, when girls from Brigades all around the Chilterns travelled to Dorset for a weekend in Swanage. Whether it was night time walks or learning archery, I didn't realise it at the time but as well as being a lot of fun, camps and weekends away increasingly made me both more independent and more confident.

The Girls Brigade also gave me the opportunity to take more responsibility. Alongside my own sessions on a Monday evening, I also began to help out with the younger girls in the Explorer group, the youngest girls aged 5-8. This allowed me to work towards becoming a Young Leader. I attended three training days, alongside working with the Explorers to achieve my Advanced Young Leader badge.

Once I had reached the Brigaders, the oldest of the groups, for 16-18 year olds, I was able to begin working towards another award: the Queen's Award, the highest attainable in the organisation. This involved six different sections of work. As well as completing my Brigader Brooch, through the work we did on a Monday night, I undertook several months of voluntary work in a cafe in the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. I passed a test on Britain, its monarchy and government, and the Girls Brigade itself. I also attended a weekend away, discussing many relevant issues for women and Britain today such as slavery in the UK. As well as simultaneously doing my A Levels, I created a written project on Edith Cavell, First World War nurse.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the award was the initiative tasks, allocated to me by Company Captain Linda Gill. My first challenge was to interview Pearl Riley, a former Brigade officer about her experiences; my second, to run a table at a children's craft morning, followed by writing reports on both. They were challenging in different ways: deciding what questions to ask Pearl and trying to control excitable children at the craft morning were equally difficult!

On receiving the award, not only was I presented it at church by the Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, but I also attended a national Girls Brigade presentation ceremony in London, after having had afternoon tea at a very posh hotel with Queens Award girls from all over the country. To be a part of it all was a huge privilege.

The Girls Brigade also gave me once in a lifetime opportunities. In 2012, I was invited to be an attendant at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee pageant in London on the River Thames. I stood on the VIP embarkation walkway as a representative of the Girls Brigade, where I greeted people such as Prince Andrew, John Major, Boris Johnson and the Middleton Family (although unfortunately not Catherine, William or Harry). For a couple of years I also carried the GB flag at Aylesbury's remembrance parade, standing alongside veterans of the First and Second World Wars. Both opportunities made me proud to be a part of the organisation and to be trusted to represent them at such prestigious events.

16 years after I first started Girls Brigade aged five, I know there are still opportunities for me to get involved with an organisation which became a huge part of my growing up. Whether that be in their 18-30s groups around the country or even joining a company and training as a leader. Although I haven't taken that up yet, I know that when I decide where I am settling and what I am doing with my life (!) those opportunities will be there if I want them.

The Girls Brigade not only taught me some basics, but provided me with so many experiences which cannot be replicated. It encouraged me to be self-disciplined, responsible and independent.

Since 1999, when I joined, the organisation has had to change and develop to ensure that it stays relevant for young girls and women today in a rapidly evolving world. Yet ultimately at its core it has remained the same. I don't know if you are still taught to lay a table, but the basic life skills and teachings, alongside all its spiritual aspects will still be there. The opportunities may have changed, the activities may now be different, but fundamentally, the basis, morals and foundations of the organisation still remain the same.

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