By Ron Leir
On March 20, 1960, the Girl Scout House in Kearny opened its doors, thereby kicking off a new era for a then-growing scouting movement among girls in West Hudson.
Today, with membership slacking off a bit locally and nationwide, the Kearny-based girl scouts want to send out a message to the communities of Kearny, Harrison and East Newark that the scouting mission is still operating.
But the home base at 635 Kearny Ave. could use a shot of adrenalin to keep it going so, to that end, the West Hudson Girl Scout Council – revamped in 1963 as the WeHudCo Trust to maintain the building – will hold a “rededication” of the Kearny House and kick off a fundraising drive on Saturday, Oct. 11, from 10 a.m. to noon. Mayor Alberto Santos will preside at a ceremonial ribbon- cutting slated for 11 a.m.
Girls from kindergarten to grade 12 and their parents are invited to attend the open house. There will be crafts for kids and everyone is welcome to pitch in with preparing decorations for the Girl Scouts float for the town’s upcoming Halloween Parade.
As a follow-up activity, the scouts have scheduled a Home Party Vendor Day for Saturday, Nov. 15, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Kearny House with proceeds of all sales going to the House fundraising drive.
Some background on the evolution of the Kearny House: Archibald Salmond is credited with the introduction of Girl Scouts to Kearny in 1918. The West Hudson Girl Scout Council was incorporated in 1930 to represent Kearny, Harrison, East Newark and North Arlington. Troops met in a rented storefront on Midland Ave. opposite the firehouse.
In Sept. 1955, New Jersey Gov. Robert Meyner signed a bill that allowed municipalities to give or lease property to organizations that previously excluded Boy and Girl Scouts. “Kearny was the first town to take advantage of it,” noted WeHudCo Trust member Teddie Jablonski, who began her foray into scouting as a Brownie in 1950.
In March 1956, Kearny leased the then-vacant lot at 635 Kearny Ave., off Columbia Ave., to the West Hudson Girl Scout Council for 99 years at $1 a year and the Council immediately began a fundraising effort to construct a headquarters. A total of $120,000 – including more than $20,000 from the DuPont Co.’s Arlington Employees Welfare Fund – was collected, of which $80,000 was used to complete the building, with the balance to be used for office staff and future maintenance.
The cornerstone was laid in 1960 and the first troop meeting was held at the House in 1961. Today, it’s is one of the few facilities wholly owned by a Girl Scout unit in the state. Most meet in schools or houses of worship. The Kearny House is open to – and has hosted — girl scout troops from as far as Canada.
The Trust, which is now known as WeHudCo, Inc., has recently been granted 501 (c)(3) tax exempt status. With its contingency fund pretty well depleted, it is gearing up to raise money “to ensure the future of our building, our Kearny Scout House, and the future of the Girl Scout program,” said Jablonski.
For the present, she said, that means repairs to the roof, downspouts, new gutters, flushing out of the main drain, waterproofing the basement, fixing the blacktop in back, updating the kitchen and new drapes.
Today, the West Hudson unit – which claimed nearly 400 members in the late 1990s – has fallen off to 70 scouts and 17 adult volunteer leaders doing cookie sales, learning cooking, sewing and knitting skills, as well as community service projects like food and clothing drives for post-Sandy victims, holiday toy drives for kids in the hospital and darning little wool hats for infants.
And scout leaders are finding new ways to connect with girls. Margy Hill, with 40 years in scouting in Belleville and Kearny, recently moved to Pennsylvania but is still leading a troop of older girls through weekly “video meets” via Google Plus and monthly in-person meets in Kearny.
“Scouting is something I’m very passionate about,” Hill said. “It’s a big priority for me. I grew up in a scouting family and I love seeing what the girls get out of it,” particularly in developing life and leadership skills.
Hill recalled one ex-scout calling her “to thank me for making her participate in selling cookies” because she found later that the experience of going out and dealing with consumers stood her in good stead “when she got her first job in retail sales.”
“That, to me, was high praise,” said Hill.