It's midnight at a Maryland mall and here come 1,500 young girls, alive with energy, out for a full night of scavenger-hunting, jewelry-making, face-painting, karaoke and more.

Welcome to the 28th Girl Scouts of Central Maryland shopping center sleep-over, where -- despite the sleeping bags outside the designer shops -- nobody is going to get any shuteye.

"It's a great way to connect with your friends and, as you get older, to educate younger girls," said Emma Rothfield, 13, strumming guitar chords by a mock campfire in an arcade full of chic boutiques.

The Girl Scouts of the USA is 100 years old on Monday and thriving as the world's biggest organization dedicated to girls -- even if it sometimes finds itself in the crosshairs of America's fervent conservatives.

Membership has grown to more than 2.3 million girls, from six-year-old Brownies to 18-year-old Girl Scout Ambassadors, plus 880,000 adult volunteers, in all 50 states plus American expat communities overseas.

"We're seeing upticks in membership across the country," Girl Scouts chief executive Ana Maria Chavez told AFP in a telephone interview.

"As the country grows, adults are looking for avenues for their daughters to participate in an organization that's been around for 100 years and has a strong history of serving girls and creating women leaders," she said.

Juliette Gordon Low, a 51-year-old world traveler at loose ends after the death of the man who was about to divorce her, founded the Girl Scouts on March 12, 1912 when she hosted its first 18 members at her Savannah, Georgia home.

She imported the concept from Britain where she had met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the worldwide scouting movement. (The Boy Scouts of America, with 2.7 million youth members today, was founded in 1910.)

Soon the Girl Scouts became a rite of passage for millions who pledged the Girl Scout Promise, pitched camp under the stars, earned merit badges to sew onto their khaki uniforms, and sold fund-raising cookies door to door.

"Basically, we're all sisters," said Allison Seitz, a Girl Scout for 12 of her 16 years, at the all-night Mall in Columbia jamboree where she shared the secrets of gimping, or weaving lanyards, with younger scouts.

"You can go anywhere and feel welcome. It's always a blast. It's real fun."

But there are also serious reasons for joining.

"Colleges love to see you working on a gold award," said Seitz, referring to the uppermost Girl Scout laurel that she herself is striving for. "I guess Girl Scouts gives you a little bump up."

Getting a toy circuit board to play "Happy Birthday" at the popular science and technology table, Ashleigh Prentice, 11, and Sarah Patrick, 10, credited scouting for a sense of community and advancement.

"I see myself being a marine biologist. I like fish and I like dolphins," said Prentice when asked for her adult ambitions, while Patrick imagined a life "helping animals on land, like squirrels or skunks."

For Chavez, a former lawyer and Washington policy adviser who was herself a Girl Scout in her youth, the overarching mission of the Girl Scouts today is to build leadership skills.

"Unfortunately, girls underestimate their potential," she said, citing a recent survey for the Girl Scouts that indicated that 61 percent of American girls thought leadership was unimportant for them.

Among those who did think leadership was important, she said, many "have the perception they are not going to have the opportunity to step into leadership roles, or if they do, they may not feel prepared."

The Girl Scouts are not without critics.

Last month, Indiana Republican state legislator Bob Morris, in a letter to colleagues, branded the Girl Scouts "a radicalized organization" that promoted homosexuality and collaborated with Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider.

The Girl Scouts and Planned Parenthood denied having any link, and Morris apologized for his remarks, but a Catholic pastor in Virginia nevertheless banned Girl Scouts troops from ever again meeting in his church hall.

In 1995, a "Christ-centered" alternative to the Girl Scouts, American Heritage Girls, was founded in Ohio. It claims 14,000 members and a cooperation pact with the Boy Scouts, which for years banned gays as adult volunteers.

Chavez said such flaps have little impact on the Girl Scouts' work. "We're a non-partisan, non-political organization," she said. "Our focus is on being the best leadership experience for girls anywhere in the world."

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