It took a year and a half for the teens to raise the money they needed to get to the island.
Four girls, all members of Girl Scout Troop 1557, had decided they wanted to tackle a big project, something that would send them abroad and get their hands dirty. They kicked around the idea of visiting Africa, following in the steps of former Journeys School teacher Kate Schelbe, who had recently set off to teach and provide humanitarian aid in Tanzania.
But then Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and their sights shifted.
“There were a lot of stories on the news, and we all knew about the devastation in Puerto Rico,” 13-year-old Riley Zeleznik said.
The girls kicked into gear on their Silver Award project, an undertaking that typically takes Scouts years to complete. Their research started with Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, who pointed them to Reforma, an association that promotes literacy in Spanish-speaking and Latino populations. Reforma connected them to Centro San Francisco, a K-12 school in Ponce that needed help rebuilding its waterlogged library.
Through teleconferences and emails, the Cadettes — Girl Scouts age 12 to 14 — took note of the school’s needs, and the girls set out to raise money for books and collect donations. They compiled 17 boxes, each weighing somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds.
They held fundraisers, applied for a travel scholarship and sold boxes and boxes of Girl Scout Cookies to raise the money they’d need to buy the books and half their personal travel costs.
“They really wanted to go and help,” troop leader Coleen Regan said. “It was inspiring for us as parents to follow their lead in really trying to make a difference.”
It took the travel caravan — four Cadettes, a troop leader and four newly anointed Scouts (all adult family members — “you’re never too old to be a Girl Scout,” Regan said) — 36 hours to get from Jackson to Puerto Rico. But they left their hometown on noon Feb. 12 on a high note, having caught a windfall while checking in for their flight.
“American Airlines — they deserve a lot of credit,” Regan said.
The company checked their books free of charge, giving the troop $800 more to spend for the library.
“What we discovered when we got there was what they needed probably more than anything was bilingual books,” Regan said.
So they bought them.
In addition to spending two days stocking shelves with the books they brought over — and trashing hundreds of warped and soggy reads — they went shopping for books with the money they’d saved in shipping.
They also spent a lot of time with locals. They met the school’s principal, some of the students, another Girl Scout troop four times as large and excited to meet their international counterparts.
“You’d think that the language barrier would be kind of a problem, but it wasn’t,” 14-year-old Grace Regan said. “They tried, and we tried.”
Half of the trip was aimed at exposing the troop to a new culture and place. While most had been off the mainland and out of the country, Puerto Rico was a new destination to check off the list.
“Looking at my school and looking at their school — it’s a complete difference,” 13-year-old Anna Hitch said. “The hallways are outside. There’s a building for each classroom. The lunchroom is a completely different building.”
While many of the areas they visited seemed to have “recovered significantly,” other buildings hadn’t fared as well. Centro San Francisco’s library roof was still leaking when the troop visited, and running water still hadn’t returned. The solution: Buckets of water are kept close by to help force the system to flush.
Some of the exposure was eye opening, the Cadettes said.
“It’s like we’re almost babied from what happens outside of the United States,” 14-year-old Tove Christensen said. “Say there’s a big blizzard and we can’t get out of our houses or driveways even, the U.S. government is going to send people to plow the roads and retrieve us.
“Then there’s Puerto Rico. There’s a huge disaster and … the U.S. government isn’t really doing anything for them. It’s everyday citizens who are actually doing the work.”
The impact was felt by the people they met, and in a heartfelt letter written by their tour director, Lola Atiles, who posted her message in an Instagram post.
“Never underestimate your power to change the world with kindness,” Atiles wrote. “I don’t think you will ever grasp the everlasting impact your selfless act of service did for our people and my life.
“Thank you for making their lives better. Thank you for the life lesson.”
Now back in Jackson and readjusting to the snow, the Cadettes have a few more items to check off their to-do list to submit the paperwork needed for the Silver Award (namely, a five-page paper, Anna said with a groan).
But Troop 1557 is already looking toward its next Scouting adventure, be it the prestigious Gold Award or a smaller project.
“I think it’s really amazing to be a part of a group of girls who all have one goal and work hard and focus together,” Riley said.