Last Saturday, as the sun dipped behind the Manhattan skyline and the lighthouse lit up, dozens of Girl Scouts and parents busily set about erecting a tidy row of tents along the western side of the Lighthouse Park lawn. For many of the younger girls, it would be their very first experience sleeping outdoors and you could feel a nervous energy as they ran between tents searching for friends and testing out flashlights.
“In many parts of the country, troops do their first sleepover with the youngest girls in a tent in the backyard,” says Aiesha Eleusizov, leader of Girl Scout troop 3001. “Here in New York City, we are raising our girls without backyards.”
With its sweeping view of Manhattan and Astoria, Lighthouse Park made for a beautiful substitute.
The camp-out, which included four different Island troops with girls ranging from kindergarteners to eighth graders, was the culmination of five years work building a thriving Girl Scout community on the Island, says Eleusizov.
In 2013, she and former troop leader Janine Shaefer began an effort to reestablish Girl Scouts on the Island – Eleusizov with a Daisy troop, which includes girls in kindergarten and first grade, and Shaefer with a Juniors troop for girls in fourth and fifth grade. As a result of their success, the Island now has Girl Scouts of every level, including Brownies, Cadettes, Seniors, and Ambassadors. In fact, growth has been so robust there aren’t enough troop leaders on the Island to meet the need.
“There is a huge demand for Girl Scouting on the Island and all over the city,” Eleusizov says. “I think parents see our girls in leadership and service roles on the Island and they want their own daughters to be a part of it. Our girls have done a lot for the community in these past five years.”
According to Eleusizov, the troops collaborate closely with almost every Island organization. In 2015, when PS/IS 217 was hoping to secure funding for the school’s initiative to fund a roof garden, even the scouts who didn’t attend the local school were out getting people to vote. They have put on a show for Black History Month with the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, stuffed thousands of eggs for the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association’s Egg Hunt, delivered handmade cards and food to disabled and elderly residents, and worked with iDig2learn and the Roosevelt Island Garden Club on gardening projects around the Island.
Brownie troop leader Elle Erickson credits this volunteer spirit and the troops’ history of service with helping them secure the unusual opportunity to camp overnight on the Island. She sees the camping trip as a way for the scouts on Roosevelt Island “to actually spend some time enjoying this wonderful little Island that they have spent so much time working to improve.”
“This definitely was a good cause,” said Mary Cunneen, director of parks for the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. “We saw the opportunity to create a great experience. We hope the young ladies learned a lot.” RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, herself a former Girl Scout, was an early supporter of the idea.
According to troop leaders, the evening was an opportunity to not only learn and practice the fundamentals of camping, but also to mentor one another. Troop leaders divided the girls into mixed-age teams who worked together Saturday evening and Sunday morning on different projects including setting up the campsite itself, unfolding and putting up tents, cutting and chopping vegetables for dinner, starting a campfire and cooking using the three fire pits they brought, and cleaning up. Saturday’s event was the first time all of the Island’s troops have had a chance to work together.
“Daisies were learning from the older Scouts by watching and copying them,” says Daisy Leader Susana del Campo Perea. “The program of the Girl Scouts is something that is not taught in the school, and cannot be done at home.”
For Eleusizov, the benefits of events like Saturday’s camp-out extend far beyond outdoor skills. She says her own experience with the Girl Scouts, which she participated in through her senior year of high school, was life changing, teaching her leadership and project management skills, as well as providing independence and confidence. “I traveled around the United States and internationally representing our Council. In high school, I spent a week in India running a week-long camp for orphan boys with Girl Scouts and Girl Guides from all over the world. I remember, to this day, the satisfaction I had teaching those boys how to swim. I earned the Gold Award, which is the highest award a Girl Scout can earn.” She’s happy to see the progress the Girl Scouts have made on the Island since she started her own troop five years ago.
“I think as parents have embraced more progressive forms of education, activities like Girl Scouts are gaining more attention for the benefits they bring to the lives of their girls, both intellectually and emotionally,” says Kristin Bruan, who helped start a new troop with del Campo Perea last fall for the Island’s youngest members.
Over the past year, troop leader Dimaura Cole says her girls have participated in a wide variety of activities, including a workshop on computer programming and robotics, skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, and volunteering in numerous ways.
“Girl Scouts offers young girls growing up in an urban setting a rare opportunity to engage in activities they otherwise would have had no access to,” she says. “We are always expanding our scope of interests and activities.”
Early Sunday morning, before most Islanders had rolled out of bed, the campers at Lighthouse Park had already packed up their tents and were busy preparing breakfast for the group. Girls jovially argued over who had stayed up the latest or snored the loudest. When the adventure was finally over, home was just a short walk away.