Eight of the troop of nine young women sit near a backyard campfire during a recent end of summer gathering of Girl Scouts in Mokena to reflect on graduating high school, and how their troop has shaped who they are and who they still have yet to become.
Mokena Girl Scout Troop 70980 - Addy Kolsto, Alexis Madorma, Alissa Ramirez, Annie Fushi, Calista Harvey, Katherine Flesher, Kelly Garcia, Tori Bailey and Tori Zoetvelt, and their leader, Melanie Kolsto - has made their mark by helping others, improving their community and leading by example.
The girls sit on and near each other as they talk about the past 10 or so years together. They laugh and hug, and even cry a little as they remember some of their favorite experiences.
From camping trips and overnights at the Museum of Science of Industry, to an incredible amount of volunteer experiences, to Annie’s battle with cancer and the loss of their beloved leader, Deb Harvey, the young women agree they have grown and strengthened their bond.
As a group, they estimate they have amassed more than 3000 hours of volunteer work with such groups as The Ronald McDonald House, Fisher House, Share My Soles, and Feed My Starving Children.
“One of my favorites was definitely serving food in homeless kitchens,” Alexis said. “Being able to feed other people food made me happy.”
The troop earned the Girl Scout Silver Award by collecting basic necessities like mittens, toothpaste and soap, and distributing care packages to homeless men and women in New York City during a Spring Break trip in 2015. In addition, they made a troop video called, “Hunger Heroes.”
It was shortly after that trip when Annie was diagnosed with cancer. The girls pulled together to support Annie by participating in Mokena’s Cancer Support Center Annual fundraising walk, making and wearing bracelets to show their support, and just being there for her.
“Everyone was really supportive of me when I was sick,” Annie said. “That was really a big thing for me.”
“It was pretty shocking and not a great experience for myself. But everyone here is family, and family supports each other,” Annie said. “I had a lot of help getting through it.”
The Girl Scout family pulled together again not long after Annie went into remission. One of their two beloved leaders, and Calista’s mom, Debbie, lost her own battle with cancer two years ago.
“That was really hard for everybody,” Annie said. “But we were all there for each other, and that made it better.”
Facing the loss of her mom, Calista was able to lean in on the troop for support.
“Our troop leader, Miss Mel, has always been part of the troop more than a leader to us,” Calista said.
“She’s always been a friend to us. But especially for me, I’ve always felt like she’s been like a second mother. I’ve always been very grateful for her.
“So, I have a lot of respect for her, and everything she that has done for me, and everyone else in the troop, because they have always been like my second family.”
The young women have managed to keep in that spirit of family as they have grown up - and grown in many ways.
“I think we’ve all gotten a lot funnier,” Alissa offered, as the group burst into laughter.
“I definitely learned how to be an advocate for myself, especially at school,” Alexis said.
“One thing that I feel like Girl Scouts has helped me with is confidence in general,” Calista said. “These are my friends and they’ve always been there for me and they just really encourage me to be myself. I feel like I can really open up to them and just feel better about myself.”
“I think everyone has gained an incredible amount of maturity,” Annie said.
Calista relayed the story about an outing to a local ropes course with the troop, where Katherine became so frightened, she cried.
“Katherine says that she’s become braver,” Calista said, on Katherine’s behalf. “We always did adventures together and Katherine feels more comfortable because we were always there to help her, even when she was scared.
“This applies to life too,” Calista added.
The young women are currently experiencing their first semester at colleges around the Midwest, including Western Michigan, St. Louis University, Joliet Junior College, Nebraska, Illinois State University, and Loyola.
Girl Scouts teaches how to change the world, one girl at a time. The 980s will have an incredible impact as these young women go on to study in the fields of pharmacy, gender studies, hard of hearing and deaf studies, social work, animal assisted psychotherapy, advertising, primary and early childhood education, speech pathology and biochemistry.
Though their paths are diverging, one thing is likely to never change.
“I’m really proud of all the girls, and everything we’ve overcame,” Annie said. “I’m really going to miss everyone, but we’re family and family is always and forever.”