NYC Girl Scout troops come roaring back after pause

NEW YORK — After the doldrums of the pandemic, 6-year-old Gwendolyn Villanueva of East New York, Brooklyn, was ready to make new friends, learn new things and just have fun.

Her mom signed her up for the Girl Scouts in late 2021, contributing to the organization’s recent spike in growth following a sharp drop in participation during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“It’s an opening for a lot of the girls and teaching them a lot what they missed through these years of pandemic that we had,” Gwendolyn’s mother Lourdes Villanueva told the Daily News.

After membership in the Girl Scouts of Greater New York dropped by more than half during the first year of the pandemic, the local branch of the storied American institution has come roaring back.

During the 12 months ending Sept. 31, membership increased 38%, to 15,556. And the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, which covers the five boroughs, are on track to near their pre-pandemic numbers of more than 24,000 members next year.

“You saw a collective desire on the part of parents to say, ‘Enough with the screens,’” said Jimmy Van Bramer, Girl Scouts of Greater New York’s chief growth officer. “‘We want our kid to be back in the church basement or back at camp or back on that museum trip.’ That’s what we’re doing.”

When school and the rest of ordinary life ground to a halt in 2020, Gwendolyn, an only child, was starved for enriching activities.

But since joining Troop 2849, which is based at her school, the child has volunteered to make food packages for the needy, joined an 8-mile breast cancer awareness walk and met lots of other girls.

Older Scouts often teach the younger ones, who start out as “Daisies,” Villanueva noted.

“I love them and I like when they’re teaching me and help me,” Gwendolyn chimed in.

New partnerships with big-name cultural institutions have been key to the Scouts’ growth, said Van Bramer, a former lawmaker who previously chaired the City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens held Scout “takeover days” over the summer featuring guided tours for hundreds of girls. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater held free classes during Black History Month, among many other examples.

There are smaller events, too. Artist Yanira Castro hosted a tea ceremony and organized an oral history project for members of Troop 6000 — which consists of girls who live in homeless shelters — at her Brooklyn studio in July.

“It’s not just, let’s go look at pretty things,” Van Bramer said. “There are things to be learned, there are experiences to be had and there are patches to be earned.”

Amira Ismail, 16, stuck with her troop through the pandemic, participating in events even when they were held online.

That provided a source of stability for the Woodside, Queens, teen, who’s now working on a project to get young people civically engaged for her “gold award,” a kind of capstone for Scouts.

She welcomed the surge in membership at her Troop 4179.

“We’ve just seen so many girls. New girls come and register and old girls come back,” said Amira. “It’s really great to see.”

Girl Scouts of Greater New York is the fastest-growing branch of its size in the nation, according to Van Bramer.

“After over two years of young people being more isolated and unmoored than ever, we are overjoyed to see so many girls and their families excited to join Girl Scouts,” said GSGNY CEO Meridith Maskara.