What is that thing that sets someone off on the path to making history? Perhaps an inborn desire to test your limits. Or finding yourself in the right place at the right time. What about a clear, defining vision to pursue at all costs?
All those elements, many would agree, are part of the story of Boy Scouts Gabriella Burke and Blair Graham, of the all-female Boy Scout Troop 99 in Valley Stream. Last weekend, the pair were recognized as the first two girls in the village to attain the elite rank of Eagle Scout.
An Eagle Court of Honor, held in the Holy Name of Mary School auditorium, drew scouting leaders from across the country, a congressman, local lawmakers and hometown dignitaries, who shared in the celebration.
Yet few may know or recall that the initial spark that set these two scouts on the path to Eagle-hood was a trailblazing act of rebellion.
For roughly 30 years, there was an unspoken co-ed tradition of troops from the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of Nassau County attending the village’s Camporee, an annual weekend-long outdoor camping event.
Then, in 2019, the GSNC called off their members’ participation, effectively banning Girl Scouts from sharing the camp space with the boys. GSNC officials justified their sharp departure as an effort to “support our mission of only serving girls.” But Burke, a Girl Scout at the time, and her mother, Lisa Burke, felt the ban was a restriction of opportunities for girls cloaked in the language of protecting their interests. They were outraged, and their anger turned into resistance.
The mother-daughter duo created a Change.org petition urging the GSNC to reconsider and change course, and even when the Girl Scout leadership showed no signs of budging, the Burkes refused to give up their search for alternatives.
With Gabriella and her mother keen on having the same opportunities as those of Boy Scouts, officials from the local BSA chapter said they could always opt for the riskier but more effective option: starting an all-female Boy Scout troop. It was a first in Valley Stream history. “We were in uncharted territory,” Lisa Burke said in 2019.
But that didn’t stop them. In April of 2019, Troop 99 was born. “We were small, but we were loud,” Gabriella said. The troop’s designation was inspired by “The 99s,” an all-female pilot organization that met in Valley Stream in 1929, whose co-founding member and first president was Amelia Earhart.
The troop’s streak of historic firsts didn’t stop there. They wanted more than just recognition and inclusion. They wanted to bring distinction to their troop.
Graham was one of its earliest members. She and Burke set about making their dream of becoming Eagle Scouts a reality. And they supported one another as they took on the daunting final test: the Eagle community service project.
The project is an involved undertaking that requires multiple phases of planning and the coordination of a crew of volunteers, all putting a scout’s leadership and communication skills to the test. It’s all in the service of a single-minded mission: to leave a part of the community better than you found it.
“For my Eagle Project, I refurbished Holy Name of Mary’s World War II Memorial, dedicated to the parishioners that gave the ultimate sacrifice,” said Burke, who spent her weekends with Graham and a team of scouts, reviving the 1940s memorial that had become “overgrown” and “began to show its age.”
“It was a tiring and amazing journey,” said the 16-year-old Burke. “Scouting has made me push myself out of my comfort zone, and forced me to grow. Up until then, I was quiet and shy. Depending on who you ask now, they’ll say I’m just as loud as they come.”
“My Eagle Scout project,” said the 17-year-old Graham, “was to revamp the garden area of the convent at Holy Name of Mary Church. The project consisted of redoing a section of fence, cleaning up the yard, fixing the birdbath and replacing the garbage pails. I also placed a new bench in the area, and dedicated it to my great-grandparents, because they were very active in the church for many years.
“The best memory was working together to put up the fencing, me and Gabby,” Graham added.
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