Saturday, February 24, 2018
Human Interest

For nearly a century, Tampa Girl Scout troop has built legacy beyond cookies

Seven-year-old Girl Scout Emma Lefferts crawls on the floor in her best rhinoceros pose as her friends try to guess what kind of animal she is.

Zebra! Warthog! Elephant!

Her mother, Kelly, the troop's co-leader, cheers when someone reveals the correct answer then directs the next group to act out their animal.

No one seems to care that they are part of history. They're too busy having fun.

But the scouts from Troop 1297 are special. Their meeting spot at Hyde Park United Methodist Church is home to the second oldest Girl Scout troop in the United States.

Juliette Gordon Low started the Girl Scouts in 1912 in Savannah, Ga., as a way to expose girls to new opportunities outside the home. The South Tampa troop followed in 1913.

Today, as the Girl Scouts celebrate their 100th anniversary, the group boasts more than 3.2 million members in 90 countries. Nearly 60 million women nationwide at some point wore a green or brown vest.

Scouts credit Willie Lowry and Jessamine Link for Tampa's deep roots. The women were known for their spunk, leadership and belief in girl power.

Born in North Carolina, Lowry moved to Tampa with her husband, Sumter de Leon Lowry Sr., in 1894. Her real name was William, after her father, because her parents always wanted a son. Everyone called her Willie.

Lowry was active in women and children's issues and started a Would-Be-Good club for her two daughters and the Merrymakers for her three sons. After meeting and corresponding with Low, she helped start the Magnolia Troop, which taught girls about domestic tasks as well as how to camp and play basketball.

"She was the kind of person that thought that those things made the community a better place to live and raise her family,'' said Bet Synder, her great-granddaughter. "She was very far sighted and ahead of her time.''

Lowry died in 1946, leaving a legacy of community service and future Girl Scouts. Her husband was a city councilman after whom Lowry Park was named.

Synder, 53, was a Brownie and Girl Scout; her mother, Ann Lowry Murphey, led her troop. Synder's 18-year-old daughter, Allison, was a top cookie seller in her Brownie troop.

Synder takes great pride in her great-grandmother's accomplishments and has supported the organization financially. This time of year she loves to load up on Tagalongs — her favorites.

"I can't even imagine what the community would look like without her,'' she said. "I think she would be amazed by all the things that are available to women now. She could have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.''

At Lowry's side was Jessamine Link, Hyde Park's first troop leader. A plaque honoring her efforts stands outside the Hyde Park church along Platt Street.

Yesterday's Girl Scouts hiked, learned to tell time by the stars and studied first aid. During World War I, as the flu epidemic struck Tampa, the scouts delivered Western Union telegrams. Not everyone liked the idea: "The girls are all over town, and they are wearing pants,'' according to Girl Scout archives.

Today's scouts earn traditional badges for cooking and athletics but also for more contemporary skills, from customer loyalty to the science of happiness. Selling Thin Mints and Samoas remains a signature part.

Three troops now meet at the Hyde Park church: the Daisies for kindergartners and first-graders; Brownies for second- and third-graders; and Junior scouts for fourth- and fifth-graders.

At a recent Daisy meeting, the girls played animal guessing games as their moms dropped off and counted cookie money.

Lauren Alexander sold a whopping 316 boxes, a record for the troop. She asked her former teachers, her dad's co-workers and went door-to-door.

Just like the Girl Scouts before her.

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