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Volunteer Spotlight: Karen Neely

Marine Biologist, Big Pine Key resident and Troop Leader, Karen Neely launched Troop 702 in 2011 out of the sheer desire to foster a more skillful, diverse community. Having been a Girl Scout in grade school, coupled with a lengthy background running summer camps made Girl Scouts the ideal opportunity to introduce girls from the Keys to outdoor skills that goes beyond Pinterest-based activities. We virtually sat down with Karen to celebrate her 10 year anniversary as a Girl Scout volunteer and reminisce about her experience as a Troop Leader just months before her youngest girls graduate high school. During our chat, there were laughs, tears and most importantly a sense of gratitude for the lives that have been positively impacted over the last decade.

What inspired you to start the Troop?

I wanted to reenergize the teaching part of my brain and have girls understand they can do anything a boy can do.

What annual traditions have you developed since your Troops inception?

Camping and horseback riding are definitely a common occurrence with my Troop. The older girls love helping younger girls grow into the skills that they had mastered. At least once a year we have a “dress up day” where we’ll get dressed up and do thinks like go see a musical at the Broward Center or attend a murder mystery night in Miami. It’s definitely something the girls have always looked forward to.

Has there been a common theme or interest among the girls that has carried throughout the last decade?

We’re definitely a service-driven Troop who has experienced some exceptional outdoor adventures. We’ve camped in Colorado, hiked National Parks in Texas and New Mexico and have traveled as far as Iceland with our Troop. On an ongoing basis, we also pursue what’s of personal importance to the girls. Each girl is responsible for picking a project each month and almost all have gravitated to service projects of some kind. A few girls are really into working with kids, so we’ve volunteered our time at local events like Easter egg hunts, others are passionate about the environment so we’ve worked with the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center and participated in beach cleanups. The topics may vary but they all support our greater community.

Is there one experience that stands out in your memory?

We saved our cookie profits for a number of years with the goal of taking an international trip. For Thinking Day that year, we sat down as a Troop and the girls decided on a destination and they chose Iceland. From there, we worked together to decide what activities were most important to each girl and built our itinerary based around that. They wanted to see the Northern Lights (ironically that was the only experience not in the cards) but we checked off many other bucket list items, including hikes to hot springs, seeing geysers firsthand, snorkeling through continental plates and horseback riding into town. We spent a day in Rejekvitch where the girls had an opportunity to shop and experience the local culture. Unfortunately, we lost many of the photos from the trip but it was an experience that won’t soon be forgotten!

What have you learned about yourself through volunteering with Girl Scouts?

When I started my troop I started with girls between 3rd and 5th grade, and I was terrified of teenagers. But, I found out that I thrived in that age group. Having girls in college come back to visit and tell me the impact what they have learned has had during such an impressionable time in their lives has been extremely gratifying. When they graduate, I give each of them their first tool box and seeing them put the lessons they learned to use in everyday life makes me realize that the goal I set out to accomplish has been attained.

What would you tell someone who’s interested in volunteering with Girl Scoutst? Every troop is what you make it. I taught girls skills and lessons that they wouldn’t get otherwise and I have no doubt other volunteers could do the same.

Now that your Troop is aging out, what’s next?

Probably a fair bit of crying. I’m thinking about doing a summer reunion with the entire Troop since the majority of them are adults now and there really hasn’t been an opportunity to get together since the majority of them graduated. I might start a new troop in the future, but I am probably going to take a year or two to pursue other projects before that happens.