June 2012 Issue
Lessons for Life
Girl Scouts of the USA celebrates a century of making a difference.
It was an era when suffragettes fervently fought for women’s rights. But Juliette Gordon Low made it her mission to focus on a younger generation. In 1912, the Savannah, Georgia, visionary founded the youth-leadership organization that would become Girl Scouts of the USA. Low’s goal: To offer youngsters of all backgrounds the opportunity to find their niche.
A century later, that purpose has blossomed beyond anything Low could have ever dreamed of. From an original troop of 18, Girl Scouting has grown to 3.7 million members, earning the accolade of being the largest educational organization for girls in the world.
Here, meet two troops Low would clearly be proud of.
One for All
Pouring Skittles from a bag into a baby-food jar is a task most of us hardly have to lift a finger to accomplish. But for Tia Pregun, who was born with spina bifida, it’s a gargantuan undertaking of painstaking proportions.
And yet, the 16-year-old cheerfully persists, patiently gathering the little candies that have eluded her grasp and spilled across the table. With help from her teacher, Karen Gomez, she fashions a flower from construction paper and attaches a packet of Burpee seeds to the back. At last, her Mother’s Day gift is complete. Tia beams with pride. Hugs are given all around: For the six members of Troop No. 07730, no milestone is too small to celebrate.
Tia and her Girl Scout friends, who range in age from 11 to 18, attend Murray Ridge School in Elyria, a center for children with multiple disabilities. The students struggle with major health
issues that sadly set them apart from the majority of their peers.
But here, they’ve found sisterhood. Gomez, who also serves as troop leader, is committed to making each girl feel special.
“To know you’re making a difference in someone’s life is so joyous,” says the mother of four, who left a career in sales 11 years ago to teach at Murray Ridge. “Each student is different every day, and some days, I still feel a little wet behind the ears. But then, I think of the parents and the full plates they are juggling: running from speech therapy to physical therapy to occupational therapy with their child. And sometimes there are behavioral issues at home that we don’t see here.
“I want to do everything I can,” Gomez adds, “to help them help the child they love.”
In addition to making simple crafts, ranging from candle holders to wreaths, the girls are avid participants in the annual Girl Scout cookie sale. (Proceeds from this year will go toward a summer trip to Cedar Point.) The troop regularly visits the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, engages in pet therapy at the Animal Protective League and participates in holiday gift exchanges.
“I’m so grateful that Tia has found a place where she really belongs,” says her grandmother, Terri Murray, who, along with her husband, Richard, is Tia’s guardian.
“I’ve kept every craft she’s ever made,” Murray adds softly. “They are so precious to me.”
The girls also work on good citizenship and socialization skills. Currently, they’re learning about environmental awareness and recycling. Since most of the Scouts are nonverbal, Gomez uses a system of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language to demonstrate that paper goes here, and plastic goes there.
“We want to make life as typical as possible for our students,” Gomez says, “and joining Girl Scouts is part of that.”
Sam Genoff has seen the positive changes scouting has made in her daughter’s life. Krystal, 18, has been a student at Murray Ridge for five years and a member of the troop for three. Diagnosed with mild to moderate retardation, she also grapples with intermittent explosive disorder, a behavioral issue that leads to extreme expressions of anger disproportionate to the situation at hand.
“Krystal has always had a hard time fitting in,” says Genoff, her voice choking with emotion as she describes the unhappy year her daughter spent in public high school. “When I’d pick her up, she’d be standing alone sobbing because she felt so lonely and isolated.”
Genoff credits the Murray Ridge troop with helping her daughter make friends and giving her a sense of being accepted.
“The girls don’t treat her any differently,” Genoff explains with gratitude. “And Krystal is learning to take other people’s feelings into consideration as well.”
Leslie McGinnis understands the benefits Girl Scouting can bring. For 15 years, the Elyria occupational therapist served as a troop leader for girls who were physically and mentally challenged with medical conditions that included autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. McGinnis’ philosophy: No member of Troop 195 would ever be left out of the fun.
“To me, these kids had a right to participate in the same activities all kids do,” she explains. “We just needed to adapt the pace a bit.”
During camping trips, McGinnis would carry the girls who couldn’t walk down hilly paths on her back one at a time, while Scouts who were able helped with the wheelchairs. Troop members also earned badges in disciplines ranging from equestrianship to cooking.
“Being a part of these young ladies’ lives over the years was the most awesome gift I have ever received,” McGinnis reflects.
Spreading the Message
Alyssa Ferrando and Rachel Vinciguerra are used to the good-natured ribbing. At their age, it comes with the territory. But that doesn’t diminish a devotion to the organization that’s been an integral part of their lives since kindergarten. The two co-chair Ohio Wesleyan University’s chapter of Campus Girl Scouts. The mission of the 10-member troop: To help younger girls realize their potential and learn to be leaders in the field of their choice.
“Years ago, Girl Scouts USA developed the program throughout the country to engage young women between the ages of 18 and 29 who were either full-time or part-time students,” explains Donna Hughes, the regional director and staff liaison for Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland Council. “These women are the best messengers to demonstrate that it is indeed cool to be a Girl Scout and spread the word of all that’s good about the program.”
Ferrando, Vinciguerra and their troop members develop a range of service projects designed for girls who live in Delaware and surrounding counties. Last year, they presented Women in Science Day, an afternoon in which youngsters and teens were invited to visit the Ohio Wesleyan campus to meet female educators who’ve made the subject their career. Tailor-made for junior-high girls, Relax, Reflect and Dance featured a potpourri-making workshop, journal writing, facials, meditation and line-dancing lessons. Troop members also help Scouts prepare for college by discussing application essays and assisting them with exploring courses of study.
“Girl Scouts taught me to find myself and gave me the confidence to know that I’m capable of doing anything I put my mind to,” says Ferrando, 19, a junior from Darien, Illinois, double-majoring in mathematics and economics to become an actuary. “I want to offer that same experience to other girls.”
For Vinciguerra, a Boston resident who happily spent her childhood summers earning Girl Scout badges, the camaraderie the organization offers is priceless.
“You’re bound to meet someone who will impact your life,” says the 20-year-old history and theater major, who’s minoring in dance and planning to attend graduate school to study politics.
And by opening up dialogue with younger scouts, she adds, “We’re empowering the next generation.”
A LETTER FROM CAMP
Overnight camping is a big part of the Girl Scout experience. One longtime property, now up for sale, holds fond memories for a former counselor.
By Stacey Higgins
When news broke last year that the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio (GSNEO) had decided to sell Camp Crowell/Hilaka in Summit County and six other area camps, it got my attention. I was working at Crowell/Hilaka as a counselor that last summer of resident camp in 2000, when the camp director cried and apologized for letting the girls down.
It was a summer of seemingly constant torrential downpours at Crowell/Hilaka, where campers had to be corralled from the leaky platform tents into the camp’s houses in the middle of the night. One such night, after guiding 6-year-olds through a thunderstorm on the muddy path to shelter, I learned to love that camp.
We had sought refuge in Kirby House, the former home of James B. Kirby, inventor and namesake of the Kirby vacuum cleaner. The Girl Scouts purchased his estate in 1937 for $60,000 (the fund-raising campaign was endorsed by Elliot Ness, among others) and it became Camp Julia Crowell, named after a leader of the scout organization in the 1930s. Also on the land were a man-made lake, dance hall with spring-loaded floor and the Kirby mill house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was a wonderful house, and that night it was bursting at the seams with displaced campers tucked in soggy sleeping bags. I remember waking up early the next morning. I tiptoed to an upstairs bathroom (a luxury in a house built in the early 1900s, not to mention at camp). The tiny powder room had a magnificent leaded-glass window that overlooked the lake and I was rewarded with a stunning view as the sun rose over the treetops. I thought then how lucky we were to have access to such a beautiful place, full of history and natural wonder. (I even wrote a college essay about that morning and how it kindled my love of unique houses.)
And I think of it now, as the Friends of Crowell/Hilaka group fights to get answers about the sale of the camp.
Sarah Spiegler, a member of the group, believes the Council has been unclear about why so many camps in the region needed to be closed. Her experiences at Crowell/Hilaka and Camp Lejnar are directly responsible for inspiring her studies in environmental management, she says. Spiegler also believes that access to outdoor activities is important for younger generations, who spend more time on iPads than playing outside.
The group filed a lawsuit against the GSNEO Council. Lynn Scholle Richardson, president of The Friends of Crowell/Hilaka, says that they are seeking, at the very least, an injunction on the sale of the camps until further research and data can be explored about Girl Scout camping needs in the region. Through this process, Richardson, a longtime troop leader, also developed a passion for Kirby’s legacy of invention, believing that future campers could learn about science and technology with what exists on the estate.
At press time, preliminary hearings were taking place and the fate of the camps was very much in limbo. My hope is that the GSNEO Council decides to preserve its unique assets for future Girl Scouts and for the community.