Marci Henderson: The Spirit of Self and Heart

Photo by Girl Scouts of WisconsinBadgerland

Our scheduled editorial was postponed, so we’re resharing a wonderful story from our September/October 2019 issue.

Condensing the complexity of life, the ability to experience, appreciate, and comprehend existence, into a linear timeline is a confine that we relish for its simplicity even though it removes much of the nuance that influences connection outside of the mind. Many of us have experienced the edges of temporal removal: when focus dissolves into interconnectedness. For some, it’s an adrenaline rush. For others, it’s getting lost in nature—forgetting the things we deem important just long enough to be uprooted. An awesome rebalancing of the senses. In Marci Henderson, I see someone who seeks to give others the gift of connection as she strives to embrace her own.

Today, Marci is the chief executive officer at Girl Scouts of Wisconsin. But when looking at the entirety of her life, it’s easy to see she’s much more than that, and all the parts and pieces that define who she is haven’t changed, but developed, sometimes taking on new shapes. Perhaps it’s the amount of travel she’s undertaken. “I’m always drawn to the areas with seasons.” From the Pacific Northwest to Madison back to Washington state then to Syracuse, New York, and finally back to Madison, her love of nature and sense of community have nurtured a generous and adventurous spirit.

“Out of college, I worked with the Girl Scouts in Germany. We were serving the girls of the U.S. Military.” Marci was the food service director at the camp, and worked with all nationalities across Europe and Africa. When she returned stateside, she got involved with the Red Cross recruiting blood donors. She was working in upstate New York during 9/11, a moment etched into her heart that weighed on her in the brief moment she recalled it. Marci once planned to enter retirement after the Red Cross, but before that day came, she saw an opportunity to take on the role of CEO at Girl Scouts of Wisconsin. “What resonated with me about this opportunity was the mission statement: Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place. That we’re never done. That we’re always just growing.”

Photograph provided by Girl Scouts of Wisconsin—Badgerland

The Girl Scouts very much encapsulates exploration, taking risks, something Marci admires in her “first inspiration. My maternal grandma was a resident of a beautiful, beautiful place in Switzerland, the heart of Switzerland. Like when you think of Switzerland and you think of Heidi and the Alps, that’s where grandma came from. She left there at the age of 29 to come to America. You know the classic story of passage on the boat—she earned her way. She didn’t tell her family she was leaving until a week before. And at that time, I think it was 1922, the chances of her ever seeing them again were pretty remote. … [She] went through Ellis Island, I’ve seen the manifesto where she signed in, and then took a train to an aunt whom she had never met that had to sponsor her in Portland, Oregon. … Her independence and her courage and a dedication to animals, she loved the animals, was so much greater than you could really imagine, and that provides a lot of inspiration to me.”

Her mother inherited that drive to explore. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom until my brother and I went to college. She was a true go-getter. We would wake up, and she would decree that it was adventure day. She would pack a picnic, and we would head off to a park or Mount St. Helens or the Oregon Coast or the Washington Coast—we would just head off someplace for the day. I think sometimes she didn’t even know where we were exactly headed. And that spirit of adventure really ignited our souls.”

Photograph provided by Girl Scouts of Wisconsin—Badgerland

What amuses me about these stories is that they come with the potential to find moments of serenity. Taking a risk breeds a heavy time of reflection. An almost out-of-body experience that leaves a person questioning if they really had the courage to be somewhere completely unknown to them, to do something profoundly unfamiliar. Marci recalls fly fishing in Yellowstone Park 10 years ago. “I’m standing in the middle of a river with these mountains around me … with an excuse to be standing in the river. This is just amazing whether I caught anything or not. It really didn’t matter—just the experience was joyful.” It’s a snapshot of the endurance and transformation that is a piece of her grandmother as much as it is of herself.

Though Marci can’t imagine displaying her grandmother’s courage, at the core of every risktaker resides the soul of an artist. Marci fosters that by being on the board of Forward Theater, Madison’s professional theatre company. “I grew up in a family committed to music, theatre, and the visual arts.” Though not artistic by her own account, Marci also spends as much time as she can in Montana to be a part of one of the legacies left by her mother, “the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering that happens every year in Lewistown, Montana. It’s a three-day festival with spoken word and music. There’s a strong history of cowboys, who lead a pretty solitary life, and some of them would explore the arts and write poetry and music.” It’s something she’s proud to be on the board of.

When her mom passed away a few years ago, Marci found her old Girl Scout sash while cleaning out the home. “It was interesting because a number of the badges I had earned as a young girl were the same ones that I would earn today: outdoors, animals, civic engagement, community service, food, arts.” There’s genuine value for Marci in rediscovering herself. It’s a quality she imparts on everyone she interacts with, whether it be young women in the Girl Scouts, close friends, or the thoughtful onlooker. “Lots of times, we’re unaware that people are watching,” and when we’re making connections with those people, we never really know who we might inspire.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson