Helping People at All Times BLPGirls Scouts uphold a century-old tradition

    Photos by Craig Wallace Dale

    The scrumptious “S” word will be forever linked to the Girl Scouts—s’mores. If you were a Girl Scout, it’s hard to forget that burnt-marshmallow messy concoction with the name that says it all.

    But, as you’d expect, there’s more to scouting than high-caloric dental disasters. Or those highly anticipated cookies sold on the sidewalk.

    “It’s not just camping and cookies,” confirms Jean Styles, Girls Scout service unit manager. Styles, who has lived in Bayonne for 30 years, runs four troops.

    Her daughter, now 26, was a Scout. “That’s the reason I got into Scouts,” she says. Her daughter “started in second grade and continued through high school. She got the silver and gold award.”

    The gold is the equivalent of an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts.

    The Girl Scouts is 104 years old and has been in Bayonne for about 50 years. “It’s a sisterhood of girls working together for our community,” Styles says.

    They collect food for local pantries; donate to animal shelters; collect hats, gloves, and scarves for the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation; help organizations such as the Masons and the Madeline Fiadini LoRe Foundation for Cancer Prevention at their events; and help serve Thanksgiving dinners.

    “With bullying and peer pressure out in the world, girls need to come together in a positive setting,” Styles says. “There is no pressure to wear makeup or dress differently,” as there often is when boys are around. “We stress leadership skills, so that they can go out and conquer the world.”

    And, indeed, many have. Among the luminaries who have been Girl Scouts are Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, the Williams sisters, Taylor Swift, Marian Anderson, Michelle Obama, Mariah Carey, Lucille Ball, Condoleezza Rice, Roslyn Carter, Sandra Day O’Connor, Martha Stewart, Linda Carter (Wonder Woman), Queen Elizabeth, and Sally Ride.

    Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk

    The Girl Scout law, which touts such virtues as honesty, fairness, friendliness, helpfulness, consideration, courage, strength, and respect, is recited at all meetings and events.

    “These are not just words,” Styles emphasizes. “Girls learn them at a young age and continue” to abide by them.

    The Girl Scouts, in its more than 100-year history, has experienced ups and downs in enrollment. “When there were more stay-at-home moms, we had more girls involved,” Styles says, “because parents were more involved. Now it’s harder to get the adults involved.”

    In some ways, the organization has been the victim of its own success. As girls gained more opportunities, through Title IX and more societal acceptance, the Scouts has had to compete with soccer and many other sports. Girls are not only playing on varsity teams, but winning sports scholarships to colleges.

    “We’re working hard to get our numbers back up again,” Styles says. There are 125 girls registered in Bayonne this year.

    The famous badge program has also changed. While badges for sewing, embroidery, and cleaning house used to adorn those iconic sashes, now badges for geocaching, business, government, and website design are common.

    Not surprisingly, the uniforms have also changed. “They’ve gotten less formal,” Styles says. “When I was a Scout we wore the full uniform head to toe. Now, because not everybody can afford them, it’s often just the sash and vest.”

    The Scouts have taken trips to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., in 2012 for the 100th anniversary, and to Camp Oval in West Orange. “Many may never have camped before, or never been away from parents,” Styles says. “It’s a huge step. We cook dinner over a fire and sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag.”

    Gold and Silver

    Briel Peters earned the Gold Award, the highest Girl Scout achievement. She’s been a Scout since age 4. “I was too young to make the decision on my own, but I stuck with it,” she says. “It’s so much fun, and you make a lot of friends.”

    Going for the Gold, she says, was a “big goal. It’s good for college to have that for my entire life on my resume.”

    To achieve the Gold, she says, “You have to do at least 80 hours of a longstanding project. It can’t be community service. It has to be something that lasts. I wanted to do something to help younger students.”

    She created something called “alphabet trees of knowledge” on grammar-school playgrounds in Bayonne.

    She painted apple trees with leaves on the paved areas. It’s like hopscotch, only kids jump from letter to letter on the leaves to spell words. “I’m going to leave a stencil with the Board of Ed, so they can keep it bright and pretty,” she says.

    Briel moved from Jersey City to Bayonne when she was 6. Currently at Rutgers, she misses her hometown.

    Her alphabet tree is a sign of things to come.

    “I want to work with kids,” she says. “That’s my goal.”

    Ionna Rigos and Kennedy Christina are among the Scouts who have achieved the Silver Award. Kennedy, 14, moved to Bayonne from Seattle at age 2. She joined Girls Scouts in the fourth grade. “I started with a friend and enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” she says.

    At that point, she liked arts and crafts and “big and little sister activities.” She says, “There were older girls to look up to.”

    To achieve the Silver Award, a Scout has to complete 50 hours of volunteer work “in something that makes a lasting difference.”

    Kennedy, who is very interested in environmental issues, worked on an environmental rehabilitation project on the Mohawk River Trail in Upstate New York.

    But she wants her vocation to be electrical engineering. She’s currently in ninth grade at High Tech High.

    Her Girl Scout experience should help, no matter what career she chooses. “It’s a giant sisterhood, where we pledge to help and respect others,” she says.

    Ioanna Rigos, 14, has lived in Bayonne her entire life and has been a Scout for five years. She’s in ninth grade at County Prep in Jersey City.

    “I always wanted to be a Girl Scout,” she says, “the uniform, how they go out and help people. It’s very special to me, something I want to continue throughout high school.”

    Ioanna is of Greek heritage. Her project was to renovate an old classroom in her Greek Orthodox Church in Jersey City “to be used as a children’s room on weekends and after Mass, so they can take in a little bit of Greek culture, an activity room filled with Greek books and toys.”

    Her career goal is to be an anesthesiologist.

    “Girl Scouts taught me a lot about helping people and putting other people first,” she says.

    And About Those Thin Mints

    Some people wait all year to see Scouts out and about, peddling their most famous product. Though folks could get cookies at the supermarket for one-third the price, they know it’s for a good cause.

    “It helps the girls, and it gets the Girl Scout name out there,” Styles says.

    Styles says she’s often asked why she’s still involved with the Girl Scouts, even though her daughter no longer is.

    “One little girl will tell me that she loved camping or making ceramics, or being with her friends, and I realize how important it is that I stay,” Styles says. “If I didn’t do this, 10 girls would be watching TV rather than doing activities, working with others, and learning new skills.”—Kate Rounds

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