As Frances Sweetland walked into the Matthew Elementary gymnasium in Bonavista, over 100 Sparks, Brownies, Guides, Pathfinders and Rangers — past and present — stood and applauded the consummate volunteer and lifelong Guider.
Tears immediately welled up in her eyes as many of the women who she affected over her lifetime in Girl Guides surprised her with a ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 3.
Sweetland, days shy of her 88th birthday, had also marked another milestone — 80 years as an active member of Girl Guides, a feat that is not only a record for the province, but likely the entire country.
The woman who is affectionately known to generations of women in the Bonavista area as “Brown Owl” — the title of the Brownie leader for a group — still sings and dances around the toadstool each Thursday night with the current Brownies, while also having been Brown Owl for women as old as their 70s.
Sweetland began her lifetime in Guiding as a Brownie in 1938, followed by time as a Guide, Ranger, Leader and Commissioner — even the “cookie conveyor” for the area, amongst a host of other roles. She even began the Rangers program in Bonavista.
In addition to the Girl Guides, she has also volunteered with countless other organizations in the community, including the Red Cross, Canadian Blood Services, Sunday School superintendent, Girls Friendly Society, Health Care Auxiliary and is a recipient of the Order of Newfoundland.
Lured to the event thinking it was a cake walk fundraiser for the Green Trees camp in Trinity Bay she had spent so many summers attending — and played an instrumental role in reopening after hurricane Igor ravaged the area — the humble volunteer was met with congratulations and thanks, as well as certificates recognizing her longevity and gifts.
She was also joined by her family, the majority of which were also a part of Girl Guides over the years, including her daughters and granddaughters.
Sweetland told The Packet, during a round of “Campfire Burning” sung by all in attendance, she was surprised by the event because she doesn’t participate in Guiding for the recognition.
“I don’t know how they got all these people together!” she marveled.
Pathfinder leader Leigh-Ann Ryder helped organize the event, having worked alongside Sweetland for 13 years, she — like most — was also in Brownies in Bonavista with Brown Owl.
Ryder fondly remembers working on a sewing badge in Brownies with Sweetland. She laughs when she recalls Brown Owl’s pragmatic response to the stuffed owl she sewed. Decades later, Ryder’s own daughter had the same experience in Brownies. Jordan is now in her last year of Pathfinders.
“We can both sew a button on because we were in Brownies,” she told The Packet. “And Brown Owl knew that was important.”
At the event, Ryder spoke of the empowerment Girl Guides gives young women, declaring that Brown Owl was “girl power” before “girl power” was a thing.
“We probably wouldn’t have Guides in our community without her,” she said.
Ryder calls Sweetland the cornerstone of the Guiding movement in the area.
“None of us are going to spearhead it the way she does … She makes it look easy,” she said. “She’s a role model for all of us.”
Aside from being a wealth of knowledge and history in the guiding movement, Ryder says Sweetland exemplifies the mottos and laws of Guiding. And she is organized, meticulous, with no quit in her vocabulary.
“When you see the way she gives back to the community, that’s the example I hope the little girls that she’s with now, that’s what I hope they remember — ‘Our Brown Owl was a big deal! She was 88!’” says Ryder with a smile. “In 20 years time, when someone says, ‘Hey, we need a leader for Brownies,’ I hope they say, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of cool. I’m going to try that.’”
Eighty of the women and girls in attendance each took a flower and dropped it into a basket for Sweetland, while wishing Brown Owl congratulations or sharing a story of her effect on their lives. This represented each of her years in the Guiding movement. Some also shared personal stories—wishing for her prolonged energy and stamina. There were even those in attendance who had Sweetland as Brown Owl, along with her daughters and granddaughters — three generations of women touched by Sweetland in their lives.
While the provincial representation of the Girl Guides was unable to attend, Sweetland will receive her pin to mark the milestone at a later date.
And all the while the lifelong volunteer was being honoured inside, the cake she found time to make for the cake walk fundraiser sat in the car in the parking lot.