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Long Island

Scouts lead the way: Social distancing doesn't stop Long Island troops' mission

Girl Scout Nevaeh Allen of Middle Island completed

Girl Scout Nevaeh Allen of Middle Island completed her Comic Artist Badge through the Girl Scouts at Home program. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Life didn’t stop when the coronavirus pandemic nixed regular Girl and Boy Scout meetings on Long Island. Indeed, virtual life took Scouts in new and unexpected directions as meetings, activities and badge work shifted online.

Ambassador-level Girl Scout Troop 2140 in Mastic Beach took a big community service step, holding a virtual school board candidates' night on May 27. Two people were vying for a seat that had been held for 40 years by William Floyd School District member Jeananne Dawson, who died last year.

"We wanted to make it about community service and helping. It's hard for us not to be out there doing something," said Michelle Clements, troop leader and coordinator for about 300 girls in the Shirley-Mastic-Mastic Beach area of Service Unit 48 of the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County.

Clements said the service unit also sponsored such activities as a jump rope challenge, donating painted rocks to the rock garden at the American Legion in Mastic Beach, giving Girl Scout cookies to essential workers and holding two food drives for the Mastic Beach Property Owners Association. "We wanted to spread a little cheer, especially in the beginning where everybody was working so hard," she said.

Such efforts have given members — about 22,600 Boy Scouts and 37,000 Girl Scouts across the Island — a social outlet, helped them keep in touch and augmented troop meetings and badge work via Zoom.

That online programming will continue even as some in-person activities begin. In late June, for example, Scouts from the Suffolk County Council of Boy Scouts of America met for an outdoor riding session at Parkview Equestrian Center in Central Islip for their horsemanship badge. Four sessions over two weekends, initially scheduled for March, drew more than 50 youths.

Scout councils worked hard to move badge work and activities online to keep Scouts engaged. "By April 1 we were able to launch online," said Denise Ingenito, senior director of programs for Girl Scouts of Nassau County, serving 17,000 girls. Downloadable packets were available March 24, then the council posted videos to its website and began offering live or prerecorded sessions via Facebook Live or Zoom, she said. Offerings included a virtual Simon Says, bingo, a scavenger hunt and a science experiment using items from around the house, like food coloring, water and paper towels for a "Rainbow Walk" activity.

"Literally overnight we had to figure out how to do offerings online," said Christine Terzella, public relations director for Girl Scouts of Suffolk County. Three days a week, they offered regular programming twice a day.

Kim Russell, a district executive with the Suffolk BSA, said the council offered 38 different merit badges. Sessions started within two weeks of the shutdown. "The last half of the classes were much smoother than the first ones," she said. "It was a huge learning curve. Now we know where the flaws are and where we can make it better and run smoother."

The council didn't restrict online participation to Suffolk residents, she said, although it likely will in the future. Officials were surprised by how many Scouts from outside the county signed up. Of the 2,520 merit badges earned this spring, Russell said, more than 1,200 were earned by Scouts outside Suffolk. "We had Scouts from all over. Under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do for them."

Virtual programming

Virtual programming appears to be here to stay. The beauty of virtual is that Scouts can pace themselves on badge work, fitting it around school and activities. It's especially good for older Scouts, Ingenito said.

Junior Troop 1134 member Carly Smithson, 10, of Roslyn Heights, loved doing online activities like a scavenger hunt through the Girl Scouts at Home program. 

She grew cosmos from flower seeds she planted, took part in a singalong and did a sunflower painting project. She prefers Zoom to Facebook Live "because I can see the people, and I use my laptop," she said. She works on badges with her troop via Zoom. "We do the programs and activities on the call and then my leader sends the badge later," Carly said. "My favorite thing was the scavenger hunt. I found 27 things."

Troop 12 Cadette Nevaeh Allen, 14, of Middle Island, joined Zoom meetings for badge work and projects, completing her Comic Artist Badge. She drew a girl who awakes late for school, where she finds her friends worrying about her; she estimated it took about an hour to draw. "It's best to sketch it out in pencil first," she said, then draw the pictures and add words.

Allen, who has been drawing and making comics since she was 5, recently learned to do it on a tablet. "Easiest for me are dogs and wolves," she said, "and I sometimes draw cats. I do anime fantasy." She hopes to do a cooking challenge to learn a new cuisine.

Scouts in Junior Troop 2767 in Lake Ronkonkoma-Holbrook worked on badges and community service projects — including their Bronze Award — during Zoom meetings. They had to shift away from doing a positivity rock garden project at Seneca Middle School, where the girls will attend in the fall, said co-leader Lisa Eger. They settled on creating a public service video about positive messages and placing rocks painted with positive messages around the neighborhood. Planning took about five hours, and each girl collected and painted rocks, said co-leader Carmen Stilwagen.

Rocks carried messages such as "Brave," "Be You," "Prove Them Wrong," "Bee Kind" (alongside a bee), "Stay Strong," "Honesty," "Keep Moving Forward" and "Girls Can Do Anything!"

Likewise, Zoom meetings and online merit badge work got the 40 members of Boy Scout Troop 12, chartered at the Huntington-Cold Spring Harbor United Methodist Church for 98 years, through the initial shutdown.

"It was important to keep them actively involved," said Scoutmaster Leer Leary. The troop's 11 assistant Scoutmasters offered merit badges they were qualified to teach, and Scouts signed up for ones they were interested in. Scouts also held a food drive to benefit Helping Hand Rescue Mission in Huntington Station, setting up outside the church so people could drive by to drop off items.

Woodford Pollach, 12, of Cold Spring Harbor, worked on four badges during the social pause. Two — first aid and emergency preparedness — are required for Eagle Scout, the highest honor, and two were on for theater and reading, subjects he enjoys.

Pollach said he liked working on merit badges and seeing troop members via Zoom. He used a story he wrote to meet requirements for a school project and a badge. His participation in "Cinderella," a school play at West Side School in Cold Spring Harbor,  also helped meet a theater badge requirement, and the troop had already toured the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport as part of the badge requirements before pause restrictions.

"We learned a lot. Everybody was really focused," he said. "And it filled up some time, and that was nice — you could spend as much or as little as you wanted to." For the first aid badge, the instructor explained how to do splints and bandages, which Pollach said he practiced on his sisters and sent in pictures of his work.

Troop 12 Scout Ben Brass, 13, of Lloyd Harbor, said he liked that the Zoom meetings were focused. "The leaders were on top of it and found time to work with us on the merit badges," he said. Michael Magerle, a former Scoutmaster and New York City firefighter, taught emergency preparedness and first aid, dropping off supplies to Scouts before badge work started. "It was a different feeling than school."

Leaders and Scout officials say organizing and planning activities during social distancing has been tough, and it's been hard to plan for the summer, but their collective efforts are keeping Scouts involved.

"It's like trying to walk through maple syrup, you're just slogging along," said Laura Leary, who serves as Troop 12 committee chair and Eagle Scout coach. "You're weighed down with all these details, wondering how to get the new boys involved, get everyone on Zoom and keep it active and interesting, all these multiple steps when normally you'd just ask who wants to do this badge and take a group off to one corner of the room and do badge work."

Eagle project

Nicholas Scarmozzino, 16, of West Islip, who's in his 10th year of Scouting in Troop 95 in West Islip, took advantage of the pause to earn 12 merit badges via Zoom and get a good start on a 13th badge that requires him to log athletic activity for three months. With help from his mom, Karen Scarmozzino, he started a GoFundMe after his March clothing drive fundraiser for his Eagle Scout project was postponed then canceled. He plans to use the money raised to install a community bench outside the West Islip Public Library and a plastic coloring table, with spots for paper and crayons, in its children's section.

Scarmozzino lost his maternal grandfather, Reginald Kennedy, 89, in mid-April to COVID-19. "As I have witnessed the bravery of the front-line workers and personally experienced the pain of the lives lost due to COVID-19 virus, which sadly included my Grandpa, I am grateful this community bench will not only serve our community but will be dedicated to the COVID-19 victims and the front-line workers," he says on his GoFundMe page.

Zoom sessions for merit badges not only gave him something other than the pandemic to focus on, they expanded his knowledge. "They exposed me to things I would never do or know about," Scarmozzino said, noting what he learned about radiation and the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant for the Nuclear Science badge.

"The Salesmanship badge work was especially fun as the instructor made it really interactive and brought in guest speakers," he said. Scarmozzino had sold $500 worth of candy before the pause as part of the badge, and found a talk by Claws Seafood Market of West Sayville's owner Frank Palermo valuable. "He was saying so many things that a Scout would exhibit, about loyalty and courage in starting his own business. We thought he was an amazing entrepreneur."

Community service

The virtual school board candidates' night hosted by Troop 2140 drew 90 people to a Zoom session, said troop leader Clements. "We promoted it on Facebook and with community groups." Clements recorded and shared it with community sites.

To prepare for it, the Scouts gathered information, researched questions and spoke with board member Lorraine Mentz to learn what a board member does, explained Madison Catania, 16, of Mastic Beach, who will be a senior at William Floyd High School. "It was fun. We didn't know much about the Board of Education, and she talked with us about it and we asked her questions; we learned what they do, how they address the budget and set curriculum. We set up a script for the candidate's night with questions and then held it."

It was a great learning experience, she said. "It's much different than when you're doing it over a call. I had to learn to look into the camera and to talk slower." At the end of the approximately hourlong Q&A session, candidates were given time to make a statement. "They thanked us for holding it and said it was fun, too."

The effort earned the three Scouts who participated their public policy badge. Although she'd rather see people face to face, Catania said, she likes virtual meetings. "I feel like they're more efficient," she said.

The five scouts in the troop have been together for years, she said. "We've all done Girl Scouts since kindergarten. Our schedules make it harder now, but we still get together. It just shows we all really care about each other — it's like a family."

The desire for togetherness showed in several events. Sixty people showed up to sing for 45 minutes one night on Zoom when the service unit held a campfire singalong. Clements shared her screen and posted the lyrics. And when the International Space Station passed over Long Island this spring and she went outside to track it, "Forty people were on with me," she said. "I went outside in the yard and had the camera up — it was about 10 minutes by the time it passed overhead."

Ten-year-old Ava Tschinkel of Mastic has participated in many Scout events, including a challenge to jump rope for a minute. Her mom, Linda Tschinkel, recorded that for the service unit's Facebook page.

Linda likes the challenges, which often ask the girls to find or make something using recycled things from around the home. "We try to do the one's Ava's interested in," she said. "We identified trees and flowers for one and didn't have to go far outside. And it's nice to do it at your own pace so you don't feel so much pressure."

Summer camp revamp

This summer brings a new version of a longtime favorite. Residential camping has been canceled because of the pandemic, so some Scout camp programs have gone virtual while others will mix virtual and in-person day camp activities.

Nassau County Boy Scouts split the difference. There will be no in-person camping, but staff at Onteora Scout Reservation, a residential camp the Theodore Roosevelt Council owns in Sullivan County, will offer live programming from the camp. Campers will attend by doing merit badge work and activities via Zoom, including submitting skits they create and film at home for the campfires.

Onteora Online lets Scouts pick from among 50 badges, said David Swartz, director of camping for the council. Scouts can take up to five merit badges per week. Cost is $150 per week, with registration ongoing.

In contrast, the Suffolk County Council of Boy Scouts of America is offering day camp at its Baiting Hollow Scout Camp following the state’s guidelines.

There will be five-day sessions at Baiting Hollow, said Jim Grimaldi, camp director. Scouts that attend as a troop from Monday to Friday will stay in groups of 10 or fewer and travel in patrols from area to area. Staff will wear masks unless they can keep six feet apart, Grimaldi said, although archery instructors will wear masks at all times. Scouts must wear masks if weather moves activities indoors. "It follows along with what day cares are doing," Grimaldi said.

For troops that can’t make the daily commute to Baiting Hollow, the camp offers two days of on-site activities and three days of virtual activities. A third option gives campers five days of virtual activities. Cost ranges from $120 to $350 per week, depending on the option chosen, and registration is ongoing.

"We'll make it not school-like," Grimaldi said, with Scouts working on three or four merit badges with regular breaks for outdoor activities, flag ceremonies and a virtual campfire. A small percentage of campers who travel to the camp by bus must wear masks and sit one to a seat, he said.

Girl Scouts of Nassau County (gsnc.org) is offering virtual Camp Blue Bay on Your Block via Zoom in a series of five-day sessions from July 13 to Aug. 21. Campers “attend” online in age-appropriate groups of 16 girls for an hour each day and have other activities to complete at home, plus an online evening activity. Instructors will lead sessions from Camp Blue Bay, on Gardiners Bay in East Hampton.

Weekly Blue Bay themes include Nature in Your Neighborhood, Glamping, Beyond Your Backyard and Keep It Green. Along with a daily live morning and evening activity, there's a camp kit and access to online resources for activities to do at home. Registration closes 10 days before each session starts. Cost is $100 a week per registered Scout; $125 per non-Scout.

Girl Scouts of Suffolk County (gssc.us) is offering four-day virtual camp sessions from Camp Edey in Bayport. Monday-to-Thursday sessions run from July 6 through Aug. 13 for girls in kindergarten through ninth grade.

There will also be live virtual experiences; a kit that must be picked up before camp starts contains instructions, a patch, swag and activities. Themes include Adventures in Glamping, Starstruck, Lake Life and Camp Cuisine. Cost is $30 a session for registered Girl Scouts, plus a onetime $25 registration fee for non-Scouts. Registration closes the Thursday before each session begins.

— Kay Blough

Get involved

For information about joining or volunteering with Girl Scouts on Long Island, visit gsnc.org (Nassau County) or gssc.us (Suffolk County); for Boy Scouts, visit trcbsa.org (Nassau) or sccbsa.org (Suffolk).

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