At the ripe old age of 29, Molly Kentala and Jenny Gascoigne have seen the members of their Burnsville Girl Scout troop through 12 years of life's ups and downs, from deployments to divorces to the girls' recent high school graduation.

It's rare enough that their troop of seven made it through high school intact, as many scouting troops disband around middle school. But even more unusual is that Kentala and Gascoigne took over Troop 12040 when they were barely 18 themselves and stayed with it until the end.

Kentala and Gascoigne, both Burnsville High School graduates, were fresh out of scouting when they attended a Girl Scout leader meeting in the summer of 2001 with the goal of staying involved.

At the meeting, a mother and leader of a Burnsville kindergarten troop mentioned that she was unable to continue as a leader that year. Both women perked up.

"I mean, I don't even think Jenny and I even said anything. We just kind of looked at each other, raised our hands and said, 'Yeah, sure. We'll do it!'" Kentala said. "In hindsight, it was like the craziest thing ever."

"We saw an opportunity, and we were young and naive," Gascoigne said. "We just jumped on it."

It wasn't as easy as they initially thought it would be, Kentala said, and there were "definitely some growing pains in the first few years."

"We didn't realize how much work there was on the back end. It really is akin to having a small business in some ways," Gascoigne said.

Kentala and Gascoigne had been scouts since elementary school and had mothers who were involved with their troops. But unlike most leaders, they weren't moms themselves.

Gascoigne thinks that fact, combined with their age, is what kept their troop together when others fell apart. "If we had been parents and kind of authority figures, I think it would've been very different," Gascoigne said.

Sarah Fundaun, who joined in seventh grade, agreed. "Because of their age, they understood us more."

An evolving group

The troop began with between eight and 12 members and lost a few late in elementary school. It also gained girls from other troops in middle school and high school, Gascoigne said.

Over the years, the troop's activities shifted from earning badges to volunteering and field trips, Gascoigne said. By high school, girls led the twice-monthly meetings independently, often planning low-key social outings such as eating out or getting their nails done.

"It became more of a social group, because that's what the girls wanted," Gascoigne said. "I think that's why we kept as many as we did."

"The kind of great part was that there was no pressure to be doing something all the time," Fundaun said. "I liked being able to decide what we were going to do."

Camping, crafts and cookie sales were mainstay activities, Kentala said, and the troop always saved cookie money to adopt a family in December.

Morgan Harding and Kelly Below, both troop members and recent Burnsville graduates, said being Girl Scouts improved their leadership skills.

"I think it helps you become strong and independent as a female," Harding said. "We learned so much. Self-reliance is a big thing."

Fundaun said she especially appreciated the group's support when her parents divorced in ninth grade. "Just having somewhere to go to get out of the house during that time was nice," she said.

'The ultimate compliment'

Harding said she hopes to lead her own Girl Scout troop beginning this fall, along with fellow troop member Sydney Fulton. The pair were inspired by their own young leaders, Harding said.

"Just knowing Molly and Jenny really helped," Harding said. "We were like, 'If they can do it, we can do it.' "

Kentala said that for her and Gascoigne, knowing that the girls want to lead a troop is "just the ultimate compliment." Kentala may look into helping lead a junior high or high school troop in Boston, where she recently moved.

Though they had their last official troop meeting months ago, the group plans to stay in touch as members head off to college this fall. They plan on continuing their holiday sleepover tradition this December, Gascoigne said.

"I know so many of them really well," Below said. "I think we're going to stay together."

Fundaun said she always saw Kentala and Gascoigne as in charge, though they were young.

"They definitely were our mentors before," Fundaun said. "Now I would just call them friends."