New Girl Scout CEO in N.J. prepares girls for lifetime of leadership

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    Natasha Hemmings was never a Girl Scout, but the core values of her Caribbean upbringing say otherwise.

    Raised by parents who emigrated from Barbados, Hemmings grew up in Plainfield to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate, caring and courageous.

    Those ideals are unmistakable Girl Scout traits. Now add Hemmings’ 18 years of experience in marketing and communication, strategic planning and nonprofit programming. Then hang everything on this quote that she lives by every day: “Be the change you want to see.”

    Guess what happened next?

    Hemmings, a Piscataway resident, landed her dream job this year to prepare young girls for a lifetime of leadership.

    She is the chief executive officer of the Girls Scouts Heart of New Jersey, which serves 17,000 Girl Scouts and 10,000 adult volunteers in Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset, Union and Warren counties. She is the first African-American to hold the post.

    “I can’t believe I’m here,” she said. “This is what I’m meant to be doing.”

    Hemmings is the G.I.R.L in Girl Scouts: A Go Getter, Innovator, Risk Taker and Leader.  After a nationwide search, the Girl Scout Council’s board of directors thought so, too. It selected Hemmings to lead the organization in March, but she’s been familiar with the group over the past 18 years. In southern and central Jersey, she increased membership and opportunities for Girl Scouts as its chief marketing and communications officer, and has held strategic and managerial responsibilities in retail operations.

    In her new position, which she started in April, Hemmings is leading one of the largest Girl Scout Councils in the state. She’s on a mission to expand its influence by increasing membership in urban communities such as Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City.

    There’s no shortage of girls to recruit, particularly in Newark, where there are 26,000 girls in grades K-12, according to Census data that Hemmings has researched.  In Newark, there are 233 registered Girl Scouts, of which 150 are active in 15 troops. By the end of the year, Hemmings wants to have 400 girls active. In Jersey City there are 293 Girl Scouts; Elizabeth, 85; and Irvington, 87.

    “Those are girls who can benefit from the Girl Scout leadership experience,” she said.

    When she was a troop leader in Plainfield 10 years ago, Hemmings said the membership increased from six to 32 girls. Her daughters, now 15 and 11 years old, are still members. Her husband is a co-leader of the troop, too. In Barbados, her mother and aunt were members of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, before settling in the United States.

    Girl Scouts have been a family affair, an experience Hemmings will bring to homeless shelters where girls and their parents reside. There’s also a program for girls whose mothers are incarcerated at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton. It’s called Girls Scouts Beyond Bars, and the goal is to re-establish mother-daughter relationship through Scouting.

    The organization, however, has to work on recruiting adult volunteers in urban areas and explain that the opportunity to be involved with a troop is not as daunting as they may think. It could mean that a troop is led by several adults, instead of the traditional model of one or two people.

    In case you’re interested, Hemmings said, volunteers don’t have to have a child in the troop, either.  The adults — after necessary background checks — can be men or women who want to be involved in some aspect.

    “We’ve got a lot of girls who want to join,” Hemmings said. “It’s finding adults who are willing to mentor. Volunteers are the heart and soul of the Girl Scout movement.”

    Hopefully, the following anecdote might help to move the needle.

    Erin Sweeney, a Newark resident raised in Sussex County, thought she’d volunteer for about 10 weeks at Chancellor Avenue School, where Troop 20134 started two years ago as an after-school program with girls from sixth to 10th grade.

    “I said, ‘I’ll just do a few more months,’ and the next thing you know, it’s a full-blown troop,” said Sweeney, the troop leader. “Once you get to know the kids, you can’t stop. I got hooked.”

    Did that tug at some hearts out there to sign up?

    If not, check the impact she’s had with dedicated parents like Pam McNeil, who says the girls need a community village to show them that hard work pays off.

    The troop, which has nine members, is on its way to Paris from next Friday to July 5. They sold a lot of cookies for airfare; other baked goods, too. A big lift, though, came from private and public donations to raise $15,000 that helped make the trip possible.

    They will be staying with a Paris-based troop of American Girl Scouts living abroad with their parents. Aside from seeing the sites, like the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, the girls will participate in Independence Day ceremonies and programs to celebrate the achievements of African-American expatriates who live in Paris.

    The troop’s itinerary is packed, and it started on Wednesday when the Newark City Council gave each girl a proclamation praising their fundraising efforts. The council kicked in, too.

    The girls are psyched about the trip, even though the seven-hour plane ride makes about half of them nervous.  It will be their first time flying.

    But it’s worth the jitters. Gloria Colon, 14, said Girl Scouts builds character and has taught her to be respectful.

    “We’re all sisters,” said Kymora Howell, 12. “They’re my family no matter what.”

    Colon agreed. She hugged her Girl Scout sister in the City Council chamber.

    Still, the mission continues to create troops for girls and to get volunteers to buy in. Hemmings knows it can be done.

    Hemmings is the living change she wants to see in the world, and she left a good-paying sales job 18 years ago to find that purpose.

    It’s one word with four letters. They’re tall, made of wood and sit on the windowsill in her office to spell G.I.R.L.

    “I know what the Girl Scouts can do,” Hemmings said.

    The girls who will receive the gift of leadership know it, too.

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