She'll probably save it all. The tattered troop flag. The twigs and the bark the girls gathered in the woods when they were learning to identify trees. Even the silly stuff, such as the restaurant-size pickle jar filled with sand that became their Girl Scout flag stand.

Eight years ago, not long after moving to Columbia, Cindy Ault took over Troop 1689. With Ault as its leader, the troop not only grew, but it remained intact, and every girl earned a Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouts and a distinction equivalent to the Boy Scouts' Eagle Award.

"It's very unique to have all 18 girls -- the entire troop -- stay together and reach this level. It's quite an accomplishment," said Olinda Roxbury, a member of the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland board of directors. The girls are among the 77 Scouts who will be honored tonight by County Executive James N. Robey (D) during a ceremony at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Nationwide, the number of Girl Scouts has continued to grow each year, totaling nearly 2.9 million, according to Girl Scouts of the USA. Only 13 percent of them are 11 or older. In an era when sports and other activities are vying for girls' attention -- and the image of a Girl Scout is anything but cool -- keeping girls interested is a challenge.

"It's brutal competing for their attention now," Ault said. "We don't have many Brownies coming up at all. Still, it's my observation that we have a lot more older girls staying in."

If that's true, it's because Scout leaders such as Ault are creating more ways to maintain their interest while helping them develop leadership skills and the self-esteem that often eludes teenage girls.

"What was important about our troop is that it became a peer group where the girls found acceptance regardless of who they were or whether or not they were popular in school," said Lucia Martin, assistant leader of Troop 1689 and a counselor in the Anne Arundel County school system.

Among parents and girls alike, Ault gets the credit.

"Ms. Ault is the troop," said troop member Laura Zimmerman, 17. "She's awesome."

Scouting Roots

Ault grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., and was a Scout herself.

"When I was a Brownie, I had a beautiful and creative troop leader whose face lit up whenever we were around," she said. "Unfortunately, she died in an auto accident, and our troop was never the same."

After that, she said, Scouting offered nothing for her. She quit in the seventh grade. Ault went to William Woods College in Fulton, Mo., graduated with a degree in art education and taught for a while before becoming a graphics designer. When she took over Troop 1689, she committed herself to giving the girls everything she missed and to "do it right."

At first, she said, her role was to help plan fun activities and try to keep the girls from "getting into hissy fits." When they finished elementary school, Ault shifted their weekly meetings from Wilde Lake Middle School to her home "so they wouldn't have to suffer the stigma of being in Scouting."

"It's too bad that Scouting has this reputation. Girls at a certain age go through this thing of what's in, what's not," she said.

But Ault made it a sisterhood. She planned more than 30 trips over the years -- skiing, camping, rappelling and more. "I did not want the girls to give up just because things were getting a little rocky," she said. "We planned fun activities; that's what brought them back year after year."

Through middle school, friendships within the troop fell apart. Cliques developed. Ault said she didn't try to intervene. Instead, she let natural friendships stand, break apart and form with other girls.

At times, some girls, including Ault's daughter Stephanie, now 17, wanted to quit. None did.

"I knew I would be left out if I quit," said Jessica Robey, 18. "Like brushing your teeth, I got used to going to Ms. Ault's every Sunday."

They opened most meetings with the flag ceremony and the Girl Scout Promise: "On my honor, I will try: to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law." They always said the Pledge of Allegiance, too.

As the girls grew older, Ault talked with them about the issues they faced as adolescents. She helped teach them about safety and independence.

"Ms. Ault taught us how to take care of ourselves and each other," Robey said. "We learned about what to do if our car broke down and we were alone."

Throughout the Scouts' high school years, Ault's two-story gray house on a cul-de-sac in the Longfellow neighborhood became a place they could go anytime.

"Cindy's home became their safe house," said Kathleen House-Gandy, the mother of troop member Chloe, 17. "The girls had permission go there anytime they need to, day or night. If Cindy wasn't home, they knew how to get in."

For Ault, being a Girl Scout leader wasn't always easy.

"I remember times I felt like, 'How did I get myself into this. I'm just a Girl Scout leader, not a trained psychologist.' . . . Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, and I might just flop in a chair. But it was so important that they can go just somewhere and tell an adult about what's going on, whether they're scared, afraid, in over their head. They knew I'd always give them the straight story," she said.

"We discussed topics such as drinking, sex, drugs and smoking, issues that weren't easy to talk about at home," Ault said. "The girls thrived in that environment."

They knew, she said, that nothing they talked about would leave the house. "I had many opportunities to pick up the phone and say, 'You won't believe what your daughter's doing,' " Ault said, joking. But parents knew that she would share information they really needed to know.

A Law and Promise

Soon, 13 of the girls will be graduating from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia and three from Glenelg High School in Glenelg. One moved from Howard County to Anne Arundel County and will finish at Old Mill High School there. The 18th member of the troop is a junior at Wilde Lake High.

Over the past four years, each girl has completed 75 hours of community service required for high school graduation, plus 250 hours to earn their Girl Scouts Gold Award.

Projects for the Gold Award must benefit the community and have a lasting impact. Ault encouraged each girl to push herself to the limit with her project. "I set high expectations for their Golds," she said.

The girls dedicated at least 50 hours to planning and implementing their projects. Ault created lesson plans to help them earn the more than 35 Girl Scout badges in arts, science, math, the outdoors and community service that were necessary before they even embarked on their Gold Award projects.

"I hope the Gold Award process taught them the lessons of disappointment as well as what it feels like to see something through to the end," Ault said.

To the girls, the projects have meant different things.

"Helping out in the community was fun, and I learned to take a more active role in what's going on around me," said Krista Schmidt, 17.

"Working with underprivileged kids in Belize showed me that we have everything," said Chloe Gandy.

In some ways, the projects were merely an extension of what Troop 1689 had done all along. The girls had come together to prepare meals for sick neighbors and people in crises. They conducted a memorial service for a teacher and provided support for girls whose parents had divorced and for members who experienced death in their families.

"This has been so much more than meeting every Sunday and reciting the Girl Scout Law and Promise. We live them," said Pamela Thomas, 17, the lone junior in the troop.

Building Leaders

Along the way, the members of Troop 1689 had fun. They learned to belly dance, camp and canoe. The trips to Calvert Cliffs and Maple Tree, Pa., were the most memorable, they said, recalling the ghost tales, frigid temperatures, all night singing and talking, as well as tubing, body surfing and visits to nearby historical sites.

Along with several other fathers, Ault's husband, Greg, a landscape gardener and gourmet chef, often accompanied the troop. He took his specialty: stuffed baked potatoes. The girls did the rest of the cooking.

"On one of our father-daughter trips, my stepdad and I became much closer," said Michelle Bone, 17. She recalled being in a canoe with her stepfather and Stephanie Corns, 17, when it became lodged in some rocks. After seeing a snake nearby, the girls screamed and wouldn't get in the water to free the canoe, Bone said. "My stepdad got in and pushed us a long way down the creek," she said.

Amid the clamor of a recent meeting, talking as fast and loud as the girls, was Ault, pretty, petite and hip -- a persona that belies her strength and influence.

With the memory of her Brownie leader not far from her mind, Ault has tried to play to each girl's strength and find something special within her.

"Cindy appreciates the individuality of each girl and, as a result, each one appreciates Cindy. She knows how to get the best out of them," Roxbury said.

In reflecting on their years together, Sabrina Taylor-Smith, 18, said she has learned that "every single girl in the troop has a leader in her." Being in the troop has brought confidence to Aryn Dagirmanjian, 17, who once broke out in a cold sweat if she had to speak before anyone. Deirdre Martin, 17, said she no longer worries so much about what people think of her. Katy Roxbury, 18, said she has gained the confidence to enroll in Outward Bound classes. Megan Royden, 17, went from being terrified during her first sleepover to becoming confident enough to travel to Japan on her own.

"It may not show for a while how much this troop affected us," said Elizabeth Johnson, 18. "In 10 years we might be known around town as that special troop."

As she sifted through the mementos and put together a special gift for each girl, Ault said she hopes that Scouting will serve them well. Already she's thinking about the care packages and their visits home from college.

"We've been together so long and shared so many experiences and confidences that watching them graduate. . . . well, I will be a mess."

"Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, and I might just flop in a chair," troop leader Cindy Ault said. "But it was so important that they can go just somewhere and tell an adult about what's going on . . ." Above, Ault speaks at the girls' last meeting at her home. Below, members Megan Royden, Deirdre Martin and Chloe Gandy serve snow cones at the Longfellow spring fair. Ault made the troop a sisterhood, planning more than 30 trips over the years and other activities. Troop members' memories include, from above, a river trip, a 1993 camping trip and a 1999 celebration. Cindy Ault, center, learns belly dancing with Scouts Megan Royden, left, and Rebecca Bastian at her home, where troop members could go anytime.