MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Not so long ago, the Girls Scouts in Mahopac could have been considered an endangered species. Now, under the auspices of new leadership that has brought renewed energy and fresh ideas to the organization, the group is bigger and more vibrant than ever.
“When my daughter started about five or six years ago, there wasn’t a lot of communication,” said Liz Gagnon, service unit manager for Mahopac Girl Scouts. “[The organization] had started to wane. Girls were graduating and the older leadership was moving on, leaving behind younger leaders who didn’t have the knowledge or confidence.”
At that point, Gagnon says, Anna Horvath took over as the service unit manager. About six months later, Gagnon and another mom, Randi DiMilia, decided to join Horvath’s team.
“There was a lot of stress,” she said. “We were all young leaders. I looked at Randi and said, ‘You and I are going to help rebuild this community.’ It was floundering. There were no community events, no one was participating. It was a mess and we didn’t know what to do.”
Gagnon said she was the “idea person,” but pointed to DiMilia as the behind-the-scenes volunteer who did a lot of the heavy lifting.
“We always called her the ‘great behind service unit manager,’” Gagnon said. “Randi is the detail person; she is on the phone and organizing. I am more the idea person. For three years we were on the phone at 5 o’ clock in the morning or texting each other—rebuilding, creating events, creating badge work, helping leaders get on their feet and recruiting people.”
DiMilia went to regional Scout leaders to ask for help in jump-starting the Mahopac group.
“I went to our council in Pleasantville and told them we are falling apart and [asked] how can we fix it,” she said. “They gave me names and phone numbers for leaders in Carmel, Yorktown and Lakeland and we reached out and they told us how to rebuild and what we needed to do to be successful.”
When Horvath decided to step down three years ago, Gagnon and DiMilia became service unit managers and Gagnon noticed that the member numbers in Mahopac were increasing. They now have more than 300 girls and 140-plus leaders. Their goal is to add 20 percent to the membership each year for the next three years.
“Two years ago, we started busting through all our numbers, breaking records,” she said. “We were one of the few units whose numbers were increasing year after year.”
“We have come a long way since that day,” DiMilia added. “It was the three of us that went to the community and asked what we can do to make this better, and it took about three years to turn it around.”
It wasn’t easy at first, DiMilia said, but patience and perseverance paid off.
“It started as a gripe fest, but it ended really well, and we got a lot out of it,” she said of the initial meetings with the leaders. “We’ve tried to stay on top of it and introduce ourselves to all these new leaders and be personable so people can reach out. We have a softer side now and are more well-known throughout the community and we are beginning to have a face.”
Gagnon credits that new group of leaders with helping to revitalize the Scouts, along with a long list of community events they’ve implemented over the past few years.
“We have such an incredible group of young leaders coming on board,” she said. “Our events are growing and growing—the holiday fair, the Girl Scouts birthday party, where we had 112 girls show up, about half of all the girls from 40 troops
“We said our No. 1 goal was to break [the stereotype] that we just sell cookies,” she continued. “Girl Scouts is so much more than that. We are building girls with courage, confidence, and character and by doing that we are creating a sisterhood of leadership.”
Gagnon said they have leaders’ meetings monthly and do team-building exercises.
“We have roundtables with 16 or 17 leaders showing up now,” she said. “We’ll have a topic and they can ask questions, like how do you create badge work, how do you run the meetings and drive the girls to finish their badge work. For example, the Brownie troop is going to the courthouse to earn their civic badges.”
Another way Gagnon and DiMilia are working to grow the Scouts in Mahopac is by taking advantage of social media—Facebook, in particular—something that wasn’t readily available a decade ago. They’ve also just launched a website, mahopacgirlscouts.com, which contains an abundance of information both for leaders and for those thinking of joining.
“We are always doing recruitment now,” Gagnon said. “We have a table at Back to School Night; we are at the street fair. We want people to know we are alive and well and looking for girls who want to make a difference.”
Gagnon said they aren’t just trying to recruit Scouts, but adult leaders as well.
“I am a working fulltime mother and so is Randi,” she said. “We know what it’s like to be busy. We tell the [potential] leaders who are on the fence about it that Girl Scouts is what you make it. Anything is possible.”
Gagnon said they’re trying to promote all aspects of scouting, from the outdoors to community service.
“Girl Scouts has a robotic team if they’re into that; if they want to sing, we have the Dotted Half Notes,” she said. “We have a big kayaking event planned with Hudson River Expeditions, and family apple picking at Stewart Farms on Oct. 6. We are working on the Red Cross babysitting certification, First Aid certification, and financial planning for older girls to learn how to spend money responsibly.”
Gagnon said scouting is an alternative to activities such as sports and cheerleading.
“Those things are awesome, but not everyone is into that,” she said. “Some want something more. I want more girls to know there is an opportunity here. We do something almost every weekend out in the community.”
Gagnon said scouting may have the reputation of being “geeky or nerdy,” but noted that it is anything but that. Every female secretary of state, from Madeline Albright to Condoleezza Rice to Hillary Clinton was a Girl Scout.
“We have an acronym, G.I.R.L., which means Go-getter, Innovator, Risk-taker, Leader,” Gagnon said. “We are girls. We are empowered and scouting gives you opportunities to create a girl who can go out and do all these things on their own; all these components build a leader.”
Reluctant at first to take the reins, DiMilia and Gagnon are now excited with the progress that’s been made and the direction the Mahopac Girl Scouts is headed.
“Liz often says Girl Scouts is her happy place and I would have to agree with her,” DiMilia laughed.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Scouts or joining up can email recruiter Stacy Brigante at email@example.com.