NEWARK, NJ -- There’s a myth about all those Thin Mints, Tagalongs and Do-si-dos the CEO of Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey (GSHNJ) wants to dispel.

“It’s not a cookie program. It’s not a cookie sale,” Natasha Hemmings said while sitting in Whole Foods in Downtown Newark, catching a quick bite before she headed out to another meeting.

“It’s an entrepreneurial program.”

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Hemmings, who in April became the first African American to head one of the largest girl scout councils in the state, is using a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit to grow membership in urban areas like Newark. And she’s been using every last bit of her connections in Newark to get the job done.

Girl Scout membership in the GSHNJ council - which includes 17,000 girls in Warren, Hunterdon, Somerset, Essex, Union, Hudson and Middlesex counties - has traditionally been concentrated in the western side of the state, said GSHNJ Chief Operating Officer Michael Forrestall.

“You need to serve people who are representative of all the people you’re serving,” Forrestall said. “And I don’t think we’re there yet.”

That’s because moms in the western counties were girl scouts themselves, and went on to become troop leaders for their children. That hasn’t been the case in places like Newark, or even Hemmings’ hometown of Plainfield.

Hemmings was never a girl scout, but she’s worked for the nonprofit organization for more than 17 years. She was previously the chief marketing and communications officer for the Girl Scout's central and southern council in New Jersey.

“I didn’t see girl scouts,” Hemmings said, recalling her time growing up in Plainfield. “So it was hard to aspire to something that I couldn’t see.”

There were about 150 girl scouts in Newark this time last year, and that number has risen to more than 400 now, according to Forrestall. The skyrocketing girl scout membership has now outpaced the number of adult troop leaders and volunteers in Newark too. 

To meet the new demand, Hemmings met with leaders of organizations in Newark yesterday to learn how to recruit more troop leaders and volunteers. She’s also looking for office space and places where troops can hold meets.

After-School All-Stars New Jersey, an organization that provides after-school programming in Newark, has begun collaborating with GSHNJ to possibly provide space for troops. The girl scouts would align with the five pillars of After-School All-Stars, which include career exploration opportunities, STEM programming, and volunteerism.

“There are so many things that tear our girls down,” said After-School All-Stars New Jersey Executive Director Nicole Harris. “We probably don’t even see it.”

Hemmings also met with Keith Dent, of Rising Tide Capital, to learn more about finding partners who may want to volunteer or be troop leaders. Rising Tide Capital works with struggling entrepreneurs and communities to build businesses.

For Hemmings, the Girl Scouts is more than just camping, crafts and cookies. The organization, she said, helps create strong female leaders in local communities. Girl scouts’ now focus on outdoor experiences, building entrepreneurial mindsets, life skills and STEM. 

“I think it gives them a sense of how large the world is, but it also shows how they can make an impact right here.”

That was definitely the case for nine girls scouts in Newark, who made a trip to Paris last year. They sold cookies to help pay for the journey and also received donations to make the trip possible.

Even though Hemmings was never a girl scout herself, she’s seen the benefits of the organization in her own two daughters. The two girls, aged 12 and 15, have learned how to swim during camp and have met other girls outside of school thanks to being scouts.

Hemmings once lead her daughters’ girl scout troop with her husband (yes, men can co-lead troops too), before she took on her new role as CEO. Over the years, she said her daughters’ troop raised about $10,000 through cookie sales. That experience has taught them skills in e-commerce and community building.

Newark residents may face unique challenges that make it difficult to recruit girl scouts, troop leaders and volunteers: They may not own cars, making it difficult to go to meets; adults may work more than one job, so they wouldn’t have enough time to devote a few hours bi-weekly to lead a troop or volunteer; and parents may lack funds to buy things like uniforms for their daughters.

But that hasn't deterred Hemmings from expanding membership to cities like Newark. She devotes one day a week to visiting Newark and meeting with organizations that can help bring the organization to more girls.  

“I’ve made a commitment to this city to grow girl scouts here,” Hemmings said, later adding that “Newark holds a special place in my heart.”

The girl scouts offer funds to help offset certain costs like uniform fees for parents. The GSHNJ raises money through fundraisers, like its annual cookie-cook off. Chefs will compete on March 14 at the Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Plains to make the best recipe using Girl Scout Cookies.

Vonda McPherson, who owns the southern comfort restaurant Vonda's Kitchen on West Kinney Street, will be competing in the cook-off again this year. 

Girl Scout membership is open to K-12 graders. To learn more about becoming a troop leader, volunteer or girl scout, visit the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey website.

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