Friday, November 27, 2015

EMBER's STORY

Name: Julia “Ember” Ricciardi
Years in Girl Scouting: 15 years
Roles in Girl Scouting: Girl member, camp staff, troop leader, volunteer facilitator/trainer, Program/Girl Experience council staff
Location: Seattle, Washington


One of my earliest Girl Scout memories involves a green tent and a red sleeping bag. I was a Brownie (in second grade) and my troop had planned our first overnight -- including s’mores and sleeping in a tent in my neighbor’s backyard. We spent a lot of time setting up our sleeping bags and pillows and stuffed animals and flashlight lanterns in just the right way. We ate way too many s’mores and our pajamas soaked up the smell of smoke from the fire we made in the middle of a driveway. As the sun went down, one of my troop members went home because she was feeling too homesick. The rest of us piled into the tent and giggled for what seemed like hours. Another tent mate left soon after we nestled in -- her stomach hurt. My friend who lived at the house woke up in the middle of the night and decided to go sleep in her own comfy bed. I’m told that at this point my troop leader picked me up -- the lone tent occupant -- and laid me down on the couch inside.

When I woke up in the morning, smelling like fire and soggy leaves, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I felt like I had something left to prove, I wanted to show the world the tough-forest-girl that I knew I was! A few months later, I tore open my largest birthday present to find a green tent of my own. That portable shelter carried me through many adventures over the next few years.


Fast forward to my tween years and things were just a little bit different. You could say that my sense of independence developed into full-blown pre-pubescent angst. Between second and fifth grade, I had moved with my family from New Jersey to Hawai’i to Seattle. On a spring afternoon, my mom picked me up from elementary school and on the drive home she said, “I’m signing you up for Girl Scout camp.”

Without missing a beat, I retorted, “NO WAY! Who are the lame girls that want to spend their summer at Girl Scout camp earning badges and doing kapers? Not me, not I! I will be spending my summer going on cool adventures. My mom chuckled a bit in response. For the rest of the car ride home, she didn’t do much to convince me of the merits of Girl Scout camp. Unbenounced to me, and in spite of my pleas for a summer activity that wouldn’t relegate me to the nerd category, she sent in the registration. (At the time I had no clue, but the stamp she used to mail in that registration form is undoubtedly the best thirty-two cents she’s ever spent.)
The second Sunday in August arrived and my mom drove me to the Girl Scout office. I dragged my needlessly heavy suitcase out of her trunk, waved goodbye, and piled into a van with a gaggle of other Girl Scouts. We journeyed for hours -- on a ferry crossing the Puget Sound and on winding roads in the foothills of the Olympics. Before I arrived at camp, I had already been crowned with a new nickname -- Purple Haze -- for the bright purple hair and spunky personality I had at the time.


I shared a cabin with Catalina and Rachel and Megan. We were from completely different homes, we were different ages and our bodies had almost no similarities. Catalina had lanky legs that the rest of her body hadn’t grown into yet. Rachel had the frizziest ball of hair. Though I was the youngest in the group, I had the most developed breasts. This was something I had been self-conscious about constantly for my final year of elementary school. None of this, absolutely none of this mattered at camp. At camp, we each had permission to be exactly the way we wanted to be. There was no one there to tell my cabinmates I completely sucked at reading aloud. There were no rude comments from boys. There were no mirrors. And no one told us we had to stop after eating a third grilled cheese sandwich. It was the first place each of us experienced true freedom.

Together, our feet pounded on the soggy earth as we hiked every trail at camp, our arms sliced through the salty water as we swam to the rocks, and our singing voices slipped between the branches of the tall evergreens. We stayed up late every single night -- playing MASH and telling our life stories. One night Orion, after telling us to be quiet six times, invited us out of our cabin for a secret midnight run along the bulkhead. She ran with us for nearly a mile, fed us hot cocoa and sent us back to our cabin with memories we’d never forget. That week, my heart grew as deep as the Hood Canal. (The canal’s so deep that it is home to the giant Pacific octopus.)


On Saturday, my mom arrived early to pick me up. I wanted the magic of camp to linger unbroken for as long as possible, so I took her by the hand and showed her the vistas, the trees, the water lapping against the rocks. I introduced her to counselors who had changed my life: Orion and Olive and Trillium and Flash and Gibraltar and many more. After my mom loaded my suitcase into her trunk and I said my final goodbyes, we pulled out of the driveway.

My mom turned to me and said, “Do you think she is gay?,” referring to one of the counselors who was waving goodbye in our rearview mirror. I had the privilege of being raised in a progressive and inclusive family. But, I still didn’t really know what my mom was saying or why she was asking about my counselor’s orientation. To me, it made no difference. I knew my counselors by their camp names and the lessons they taught me. Trillium taught me how to eat salal. Flash showed me the tricks to lighting a one match fire. Shad sang to me about rivers and tree roots. Olive taught me proper techniques for peeing in the woods and she demonstrated the best velociraptor impression I’ve ever seen. These were the characteristics that constituted their identities in my eyes and not much else about them mattered to me at the time.

When I was away from Robbinswold, enduring long school days seated at a rigid desk, I realized that Girl Scout camp was the only place I had the freedom to truly express everything that was important to me. I could be all of the parts of myself. And because of that, I literally wanted to do every camp session that was offered. Over the course of a single summer, I participated in arts programs, backpacking trips, and canoe adventures. By the end of the summer, every staff person knew my name (though, they more frequently referred to me as serial camper). I learned all the lyrics to “On the Loose.” I knew every tree root that crossed a walking path. I discovered how to rig a sailboat and how to haul up a windsurf sail. I discovered that my mom was correct in asserting that at least some of my counselors were gay. And I discovered that I had a mad crush on one of the lifeguards.
In September of ninth grade, I came out to my friends and teachers at school. See, I wasn’t afraid to share that because I knew that it was just one piece of me. Hi, my name is Ember. I can light one match fires, I am an expert at the Human Knot Game, and I like to kiss girls.


I feel really lucky to have discovered and named my queerness when I was so young. I have a lot of older gay friends who didn’t have the chance to explore their attraction until much later in life. I can only begin to imagine how stifling it is to live for decades without really knowing or really expressing one’s sexual orientation. I will be forever grateful to the women at Girl Scout camp who showed me that any way I wanted to be and express myself was welcomed.


It is a surprise to no one that, nearly fifteen years later, I have joined the staff of Girl Scouts of Western Washington. Serving as the Program Manager for Highest Awards is truly my honor and privilege. Each and every day, I am given the opportunity to listen and accept young women -- exactly the way they are and exactly the way they are not. It is the least I can do to show my thanks and gratitude to the camp staff who shaped my life.


There’s another reason, though, that I am infinitely proud to work for Girl Scouts of Western Washington. Earlier this year, my council received a donation of $100,000. Shortly thereafter, the donor contacted our CEO and said that not a single penny of the money could be spent on trans* girls. Without skipping a beat, our leadership returned the check. We took a bold and public stance against bigotry. We stood up ForEVERYGirl. We said that every girl has something valuable to contribute. Every girl has something to gain from the life altering experiences Girl Scouts provides. Every girl can change the world. And she’s welcome here.

If you are committed to creating a world ForEVERYGirl, I encourage you to get involved with the Girl Scouts or Girl Guides near you! And if you have a few extra dollars, it never hurts to donate. Your contribution -- whether it be time, talents or treasure -- could help the next teen discover who she truly is.