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Girls Just Wanna Have Fun...And Robots, Too

As the last of this year’s Trefoils and Thin Mints left my kitchen cupboard, I wondered what’s up with everyone’s favorite cookie merchants. Certainly things have changed in the decades since my sister donned her sash, dropped onto her sit-upon and sang “I’ve Got Something In My Pocket (A Great Big Brownie Smile).”

“We’re doing pretty well,” said Donna Ceravolo, executive director and CEO of Girl Scouts of Nassau County. “Our market share is one in five.”

Market share? Well, that’s one thing that’s changed, invoking such contemporary language (though admittedly, my last contact with Girl Scouts was in the age of Mad Men). To be able to claim 20 percent of all girls in the county from kindergarten to 12th grade as members is quite impressive.

“It’s one in 10 nationwide,” she said.

Today, Nassau’s membership is about 18,000 girls, down from 21,000 a decade ago. It’s not due to a lack of interest, said Ceravolo, but a shrinking population of school-age girls in the area. There’s also been a demographic shift, as Nassau residents are increasingly ethnically Asian and Hispanic, and many girls are from immigrant families that don’t have a tradition of Scouting.

“These girls and their families don’t have an experience with Girl Scouts,” said Ceravolo. In the old days, a pamphlet was sent home from school, and the girls signed up. “There is a long history and tradition of Girl Scouts in Nassau County.”

Now, more outreach is required. And that pamphlet has been replaced by picnics, parties and other events that showcase Scouting not only to the girls, but also to their parents and siblings.

What draws girls is the camaraderie and programs. “Girls love crafts, and crafts keep their hands busy while we work on their brains,” said Ceravolo, enumerating programs ranging from technology to agriculture.

For instance, more than 100 girls are involved in gardening at the Farm at Oyster Bay, an historic homestead under the aegis of the Town of Oyster Bay. The girls do everything from planting to harvesting (yes, weeding, too), and donate the crops to Island Harvest, which feeds the hungry, locally.

Other programs include a competitive robotics team and a fifth-grade electronic music course that enables the girls to  compose and perform on iPods and other tablets.

What’s also changed is the meeting schedule. Where once, troops gathered weekly like clockwork, today, twice a month, even monthly, is common. Some older girls convene only quarterly.

“The reality is that with all of the things that girls in this area have to do, eking out an hour and a half every other week can be a challenge,” said Ceravolo.

It’s also a matter of finding leaders, which the CEO said, is a “major” issue. With so many mothers working outside the home, it’s tough to find troop leaders who believe they have the time.

“Eighty percent of our volunteers work outside the home,” said Ceravolo. “So it shows, when you need something done, ask a busy person.” Even then, the commitment isn’t daunting. “A troop leader can do an adequate job in just four hours a month,” she said.

That assumes, of course, that Mom doesn’t join the girls camping at Camp Blue Bay, the council’s 167-acre facility on Gardiners Bay in East Hampton.

“Camps are changing,” said Ceravolo. “Standards have risen. We have nice concrete bath houses with flushing toilets and warm showers. There are even troop houses with really nice bathrooms.”

Still, camp seems to be fading as the center of Girl Scout culture as other programs grow. Ceravolo said that sitting around the campfire is a “magical” experience. “But nothing says you can’t have a wonderful experience sitting around the pool at the Sheraton. Or sitting in a board room.”

Speaking of big business, how was cookie revenue this year?

“Sales were down three percent,” said Ceravolo. Snow and a slightly smaller pool of girls were cited for the decline.

But even in a strong year, Nassau’s girls aren’t sales leaders overall, with the average girl moving just 65 to 70 boxes. Nationwide, the average is 160 boxes per girl.

“Our girls are not as hungry as other girls where cookie sales fund their programs and activities,” said Ceravolo, citing Nassau’s comparative affluence. “Here, parents are more willing to write a check.”