The Girl Scouts of Gateway Council is getting bigger and better.

It is the largest Girl Scout council in the state, spanning Alachua County and 34 other counties through North Florida, serving more than 10,000 members.

Its size expanded when the local council was asked to merge with the Panhandle counties that were slammed by Hurricane Michael.

At the same time, the council is focusing its merit badges on STEM and outdoor activities. This is not exactly new for the Girl Scouts but there was a need for a new brand, said CEO Mary Ann Jacobs.

Partners such as Johnson & Johnson are helping to underwrite some of the science-oriented activities. For instance, Girl Scouts start introducing STEM activities at age 5 by teaching girls how and why to keep information secure on the internet.

When the Boy Scouts started inviting girls to join, that created a challenge for the Girl Scouts, Jacobs said. Some parents wondered if they were still in business.

So the national Girl Scouts have sued the Boy Scouts with accusations of infringing on their trademark, engaging in unfair competition and causing confusion among the public.

In fact, Jacobs said, the Girl Scouts is the largest provider of active girl activities outside the public school system.

While the Girl Scouts have long fostered a sense of self-esteem and achievement, modern parents sometimes need to be reassured that the organization is relevant for the 21st Century. The national Girl Scouts conducted rigorous research on that subject with its research institute, the largest institute in the U.S. that focuses solely on girls.

Research has shown that experience in the Girl Scouts often leads to great achievement in life as well as leadership experiences, Jacobs said.

The result has been a new surge in enrollment. There also is a focus on diversity. The Girl Scouts go into public housing projects with funds to provide the full Girl Scout experience.

“We have a stake in the economic development of this community,” Jacobs said. “We need these girls to stay here and become leaders.”

Because the Gateway council is so large, Jacobs is dealing with long-range property plan. In some cases it makes more sense for the Girl Scouts to lease space, using funds for programs rather than mortgages.

The Panhandle acquisition includes four office buildings and five camps. Are they all needed?

For example, Jacobs has seen the Girl Scout programs have immediate impact on self-esteem. For instance, girls were asked to go through magazines and select words that described themselves. Many of them had difficulty finding positive words at first. By week two, their entire thought process had changed.

Jacobs, who came to the Girl Scouts from a career in private industry, embraces the competition.

She leads an organization that has survived the test of time.

“As a mom would you want your daughter in a program that was developed overnight or would you want your daughter in a program that was research-driven, developed over 117 years? It’s your decision,” Jacobs said.