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Thin Mints, tears and troops: How a Macomb Girl Scout steered 52,500 boxes of cookies overseas

Neal Rubin   | The Detroit News

Macomb Township — Combat veterans tell Elizabeth Popovich stories. Mostly the stories are about cookies. Sometimes the stories make them cry.

Popovich has been selling Girl Scout Cookies since she was in kindergarten. Now she's a senior at Dakota High School, aging out of scouting, and she'll still gladly supply you with Samoas and Trefoils. But she has developed a specialty over the past 11 years, one that sends cookies overseas and brings gratitude or even tears flowing back.

She collects money to buy Girl Scout Cookies for military personnel, most of them in places she couldn't spell or locate when she started. She calls the campaign Cookies 4 Troops, and since second grade she has raised $210,000, with more coming this weekend as she sets up a booth inside the Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace in Clinton Township.

That translates to 52,500 boxes, which is more than anyone else in the country, not that it's a contest.  Rather, it's a mission.

"I’ve been told, ‘It’s like a taste of home,'" says Popovich, no matter that Thin Mints don't fare well in the punishing heat of Iraq or Afghanistan. She’s been told that getting cookies from a stranger can be even more meaningful than getting them from mom.

She has learned, too, that she can push herself to be a convincing public speaker, even if it still makes her a bit edgy. And she's learned that if your Thin Mints show up melted and fused, you just freeze the whole mess and cut off chunks and they'll taste exactly how you remembered.

Early on, when she was 9 or 10 years old, Popovich approached two clean-cut young men outside a grocery store and discovered they were recently returned Marines — and that half a world away, donated cookies had actually landed in their hands.

“They gave me $50 each and said to send some to their brothers still over there,” she says. As much as the cookies had an impact on them, hearing their story staggered her. 

So pre-pandemic, she would pitch the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary. She'd set up in the lobby of an Emagine Theatre and spend three or four hours asking strangers to make a cookie commitment.

"It's easy for us to sit here and pass by a booth at Kroger," she says. The people she's feeding look forward to taking that for granted.

Popovich, 18, of Macomb Township, has been reinforcing the military's sugar ration since 2011. That was the first year the Girl Scouts' order form included a checkoff for military donations — little troops supporting big troops.

She astutely realized the donation overrode all of the standard objections: "I bought some from my niece," "I'm on a diet," "I'm allergic." OK, how about a box for the men and women in uniform?

That first cookie season, she took in $1,128, enough for 282 boxes. A few years later, she started sending out fliers to local businesses, asking for contributions. She wangled speaking invitations.

By seventh grade, she was topping $30,000 per year — and she had outlasted her troop.

School activities. Sports. Classwork. The onset of boys. Most of the other girls dropped out, so she and two close friends formed a new troop, No. 75924. It's still just the three of them and their troop leader, who doubles as Popovich's mother.

"It starts to be uncool to be a Girl Scout," Tracy Popovich says. Elizabeth didn't care, and still doesn't: "She does her thing and doesn't let what other people think affect it."

Popovich's parents will help Elizabeth staff the booth at Nino's, where she scheduled herself for duty from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. "Long days," Tracy Popovich says, "but you know what? It's worth it."

Indeed, says Amy Palmer, and in fact, it's worth more than most donors ever know.

Palmer is the president and CEO of Soldiers' Angels, the four-star nonprofit in San Antonio, Texas, that takes in cookies straight from the bakery and ships them off to anyplace a service member can collect mail.

Soldiers' Angels typically starts unloading trucks in April, and Palmer says she's fielding questions through her email already. Are we getting cookies this year? Can I get Tagalongs?

"There’s something unique about those cookies," Palmer says. "It’s not just that they’re great and you can only get them once a year. People have strong associations with their Peanut Butter Patties and Thin Mints."

Last year’s haul was 494,000 boxes. They’re mailed out in USPS priority mail cartons, about nine boxes per container for what works out to slightly less than $2 for each package of Trefoils or Toffee-tastics.

Combat locations are at the head of the line, Palmer says. Some shipments go to deployed chaplains, who parcel them out on site. Volunteers send some to the individuals they’ve been matched with for monthly care packages. Other volunteers might take cookies to Veterans Affairs hospitals.

At the base of the supply chain are girls like Popovich — not that there’s anyone truly her equivalent.

"I’ve never seen anyone collect that much money," Palmer says, "and we work with councils all over the country."

The cookie jar, unfortunately, might soon run empty.

Popovich is still grinding, operating the booth over the weekend and collecting donations online and by mail. Come fall, though, she'll be out of scouting and off to college, probably at Wayne State.

Her major and career plans are undetermined, she says. Maybe something in business, befitting someone who has hustled and networked her way to 52,500 boxes of cookies. Maybe something wide-reaching; her main interests in school have been the Model United Nations program and Rho Kappa, a national honor society focused on social studies.

What's certain is that with no younger scouts behind her, there's no one ready to take over Cookies 4 Troops. But if someone cares to adopt the cause, she has some tips.

Reach out to the community, Popovich says. If you have a connection, use it. Don’t get discouraged, or at least don’t let discouragement stop you.

"All you have to do is ask," she says. Plenty of answers will be no, but often enough, they’ll be yes.

Finally, be prepared, even if that's some other outfit's motto: Sometimes an answer will come with a story, and the story might come with tears.

Cookies for a cause

Elizabeth Popovich will be selling Girl Scout cookies from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace, 17496 Hall Road, Clinton Township.

To order online for yourself or for service members:

By mail, make checks payable to Girl Scout Troop #75924 and send to:

Attention: Cookies 4 Troops c/o Elizabeth Popovich

51194 Romeo Plank Rd., P.O. Box #437

Macomb, MI 48042

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn