Girl Guard : First reunion after 50 years

Published 12:08 am Saturday, November 18, 2023

By Wayne Hinshaw
For the Salisbury Post 

Using the slang phase “back in the day” might be the best way to describe the formation of the Salvation Army Girl Guard in Salisbury. Some say the phrase came from the 1980s from hip-hop music, but others say the phrase came from the 1940s. At any rate, the phrase as been around a long time just like the girls of Salisbury’s Girl Guard who have now grown or matured into elderly ladies.

The Girl Guard was first formed in London, England, in 1915 and was called the Life Saving Scouts program. Life saving skills and homemaking skills were part of the program for girls. There was a boys organization as well.

The Girl Guard idea came to the United States in 1916. It is thought that the first Salisbury troop was formed around 1935-1937 at the local Salvation Army through Army church. The guard was a faith-based program “for teenage girls centered about personal growth — spiritually, mentally, physically and socially,” to increase the girls’ understanding of life and service.

The kindergarten girls were called Moonbeams and the elementary grade girls’ program was called the Sunbeams. The boys program was called the Adventure Corps with most of the same goals as the girls program.

Flora Phillips Rook lives in Salisbury where she became the local Girl Guard program leader in 1958 until 1975. She still has contacts with 30-plus girls from the program who were living in Salisbury and scattered over several states. Knowing that many of the former girls, now aging ladies, were getting older and many dying, Flora called for a reunion to get the girls together one more time to share memories and stories.

Flora, organized the Girl Guard reunion at the Salvation Army Building on Bringle Ferry Road in Salisbury. She has a long life of public service with the Salvation Army in numerous jobs, worked with Rowan Regional Medical Center in medical records, got certification as a social worker at age 52, worked in home care, doing volunteer work with Meals on Wheels and the VA Medical Center, and visits shut-ins in nursing homes.

“It has been 65 years since some of us got together,” said Flora.

She describes the growth of the early program. Several Black families living on the West End of Salisbury moved to Lafayette Street. After moving, their families joined the Salvation Army Church and the church programs including the Girl Guard. The girls from the West End told their friends in East Spencer, and Black girls from East Spencer joined the church and guard.

All the church and Girl Guard activities in the late 1960s were racially integrated for all, both Black and white. These integrated programs were ahead of their time in Salisbury by a few years.

Margarita Gaither Bethelmy, who now lives in Raleigh and works for the Postal Service, is one the the West End girls who moved to Lafayette Street with her family.

She first attended Monroe Street School then moved to Henderson Elementary. Later, she attended Knox Junior High and Salisbury High. She was a member of the Salisbury High track team in the 1970s. She graduated from Winston-Salem State University and served in the U.S. Air Force. She has three grown children and a grandchild.

Margarita was in the Girl Guard from ages 7 to 16.

She said the guards, “Opened the world up to us. We came to meetings to have Bible studies, do crafts, and learn discipline in the early ’70s. The schools were just integrated. I moved from Monroe Street School to Henderson. There were new people, places and friends. The church bus would pick us up at home and take us back when the event was over.”

Margarita’s mother, Laurissa Gaither, always rang the Salvation Army collection bell at Christmas at the old Sky City store at the Towne Mall. Her mother’s funeral was at the Salvation Army Church.

Margarita added, “All of my children went to and graduated from UNC Greensboro.”

Dorothy “Pat” Gaither Cowan still lives in Salisbury graduated from Salisbury High School and worked as a  seamstress and in housekeeping before retiring. She remembers a highlight for her was “getting to go to summer camp. We got to stay a whole week. Back then, Black children usually did not get to go to camp.” (The Salvation Army rented the Kiwanis Camp for a week so that the Girl Guards’ integrated troop could attend together.)

She continued that the guard program “saved a lot of  young people from the streets.”

Ruth Phillips Small, and four other sisters, Flora, Betty, Sherrill and Nince Phillips, were members of the Girl Guard at the Salvation Army. Ruth got married at the Salvation Army Church and their mother’s funeral was at the church.

Another Girl Guard, Candy Hagler Platt, who lives in Charleston, S.C., could not attend the reunion, but she sent this written message,” One of my fondest memories of Girls Guard was attending camp at Kings Mountain. It was the first time that I was away from home for a week and it was the farthest I had been in my young life.” Candy was a nurse in her adult life and mothered four children.

The women of the Girl Guard lived up to the motto “To Save and to Serve.”

These women have lived their lives by the the guard pledge that they learned as young girls in the Girl Guard Program: spiritually, mentally with good thoughts, words and deeds, physically protecting their bodies with good health, and socially by serving other people as friends, family, mothers, and helping the weak and being kind to others.

Lives lived well with purpose.

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