SANFORD — Girl Scout Ashley Donovan hops out of the warm back seat of her parents’ car just before 9 a.m. With a brisk wind whipping through downtown Sanford, it feels like 10 degrees below zero.

There may be no surer sign spring is coming than Girl Scouts selling cookies, but the first Saturday in March is one of the coldest days of winter. The 15-year-old braces herself against the cold and smiles as she gets to work: first carrying pieces of her troop’s cookie booth across the parking lot, then hustling back and forth from the car with cases of Caramel deLites and Lemonades. Within minutes, the scouts of Troop 1229 are almost ready to sell. But first, the costumes.

THE FOUR GIRLS of Troop 1229 – Ashley, Ayla Roy, Kalyn James and Emilee Mathieu – have gained a reputation in their hometown for their enthusiastic cookie sales, elaborately decorated booths and corresponding costumes. As sophomores at Sanford High School, they’re among a small group of Maine girls who stay with the Girl Scouts well into their teens. All four want to pursue the Gold Award, the highest achievement within Girls Scouts, earned by completing a project that provides a sustainable benefit to the community.

The girls learned years ago the importance of marketing their business during the one month of booth sales. They raise money each year to pay for a learning experience – usually an out-of-state trip to try something they’ve never done – and coordinate their booth with a theme to match. They’ve gone to New York City to see a Broadway musical and to upstate New York to work on a dude ranch. This year, they’ll head to Boston Comic Con to delve into a world of cosplay and artistry they’ve never seen.

Before the first day of booth sales, the girls spent weeks transforming their wood booth into vivid pop art. They made signs shaped like conversation bubbles to hold while they wave to passing cars. They sewed long, brightly colored superhero capes.

Members of Sanford Girl Scout Troop 1229 wave to drivers while selling cookies in superhero costumes on a cold Saturday in March. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“We tend to go all out with the booths. We go a bit crazy,” said Penny Roy, troop leader and self-described proud cookie mom. “Our booth is always the talk of the town.”

AT 9 A.M., the girls and their troop leaders each tie on a different colored cape.

“Remember the nice weather earlier this week?” Emilee, 15, says as she tugs at the zipper of her ski parka and pulls the hood tight around her face. Her bright red lipstick perfectly matches the cape tied around her neck.

Next to her, Ashley bounces from foot to foot to stay warm. They’ve sold cookies together in snow, rain and sunshine.

“I think it’s probably been colder,” Ashley says.

They strike superhero poses and dance across the parking lot to sell cookies.

Kalyn James of Troop 1229 is bundled for the cold as she unpacks cookies outside Napa Auto Parts in Sanford. Staff photo by Jill Brady

THE TRADITION of selling cookies has been passed down through generations of Girl Scouts. It started in 1917 when the Girls Scouts of Muskogee, Oklahoma, decided to sell cookies they baked in their own homes. By the 1930s, the cookies were made by commercial bakers to keep up with demand from customers who couldn’t get enough of the treats, including a chocolate mint flavor that would come to be known as the Thin Mint.

For generations, Girl Scouts would carry order forms around their neighborhoods, knocking on doors to take orders and delivering the highly anticipated cookies weeks later. Cookie fans learned to sniff out cookie connections among coworkers and friends. It’s now easier than ever to find a box of Thin Mints.

Girl Scouts market their cookie sales on social media, take orders online and accept credit cards by swiping a device on their smart phones. Customers can use an online app to find local cookie sales. In Maine, Girl Scouts take turns selling cookies in kiosks at the Maine Mall and Bangor Mall.

Social media and apps aside, the basic skills and important lessons are still the same, says Joanne Crepeau, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Maine. The goal of the cookie program is to help girls develop five essential skills: goal-setting, decision-making, money management, people skills and business ethics.

Plus, it’s fun, says Crepeau, who remembers pulling a wagon full of cookies around her Brunswick neighborhood and overcoming her shyness to talk to adults.

“Many girls join Girl Scouts especially to participate in the cookie selling experience. It’s very iconic,” Crepeau says. “I believe they see the cookie sale as filling a goal they’ve set. They find that empowering.”

Connie Goulatis hears about the lifelong impact of Girl Scouts in general and the cookie program specifically all the time in her job as the chief of resource development for Girl Scouts of Maine. Many successful Maine women, including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, have told her about how their cookie selling experience stayed with them.

Kalyn James makes the first cookie sale of the day, to Nicole Santamore and Aimee Ezzell, as Ashley Donovan, right, handles the cash box. The girls dress up as superheroes while selling cookies. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“They all say the same thing: ‘I learned to knock on doors and talk to people through the cookie program,’” she says. “That is an indelible moment in their life.”

A steady stream of vans and trucks pulled up to cookie depots across the state in the first days of March to load up the cases needed for booth sales. Girl Scouts took orders for cookies from friends, relatives and neighbors in January, but the big sales come in March for the 8,500 Girl Scouts in Maine.

Last year, Maine Girl Scouts sold 975,000 boxes of cookies, recording gross sales of $3.19 million. In Sanford, Troop 1229 sold 1,700 boxes, enough to earn the trip to the dude ranch, where two of the four girls rode a horse for the first time.

BEHIND THE COOKIE BOOTH, Ashley double checks the cash box to make sure it’s ready. Kalyn tries to prop boxes of cookies in a tidy display, but the wind topples them over. They’ve stashed extra cases of Thin Mints under the table because here – and everywhere – they’re the bestseller.

“Everybody loves a Thin Mint,” Emilee says.

At the side of the road, Emilee holds a sign in one hand and waves enthusiastically to the passing drivers.

Ashley Donovan, right, waves to cars while Kalyn James holds a sign as Girl Scout Troop 1229 sells cookies in costume on a cold, windy day in Sanford this month. The girls have gained a reputation in their hometown for their enthusiastic cookie sales. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“We wave to every car and make eye contact like we know the people,” Kalyn says. “And we smile.”

Nikki Muise, Ashley’s mom and the other troop leader, calls them together for a quick photo to post on Facebook to let people know they are open for business. After so many years of selling cookies together, this is easy.

Ayla, Ashley and Kalyn have been Girl Scouts together since first grade; Emilee joined in sixth grade. Penny Roy became a troop leader early on and Muise joined a few years later.

“It became such a close-knit group because there aren’t a ton of us,” Ashley says. They’ve gone camping, earned badges, done community service.

“They’re like a second family to me,” Emilee says.

OVER THE YEARS, the girls grew less interested in earning badges and more interested in experiencing the world outside of Sanford. It took them three years to raise enough money to go to New York City, where they saw “Wicked” on Broadway and explored Chinatown. This year, they need to raise at least $1,500 for their trip to Boston. They make about 85 cents per box.

Emilee, joined by Ashley and the troop leaders, has been waving to cars for only minutes when Nicole Santamore and Aimee Ezzell pull into the parking lot. The two Sanford woman noticed the signs from a distance, at first mistaking the girls for protesters. After realizing they are Girl Scouts, they can’t resist picking up two boxes of cookies each.

Ashley Donovan and Emilee Mathieu check their set-up from the road while preparing to sell Girl Scout cookies in the cold. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“Thank you for your support,” Ashley calls as the women rush back to their car.

For two hours, the girls steel themselves against the cold, bagging up boxes of cookies and counting change for customers. Passing drivers beep and wave. Someone drops off hot chocolate. No one lingers to chat about the troop or their own memories of being a Girl Scout, as sometimes happens.

Just before 11 a.m., when the girls can’t feel their faces and the brief trips to warm up in the car stop making a difference, it starts to snow.

A man in a fire department shirt hops down from his pickup truck and walks up to the booth.

“You guys are hardcore,” he laughs as he picks out his wife’s favorite cookies. He waves off the change.

The snow falls faster, coating the cases of cookies. Emilee brushes snow off the boxes and carries them back to the car, her cape whipping around her in the wind.

They’d be back again the next day. Same time. Same place. Same temperature.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @grahamgillia