There’s an old photo of Emily Ioppolo where she’s sitting on a long log, surrounded by her Girl Scout troop mates. While the picture itself is dark, faded and a bit out of focus, the smiles on Ioppolo and her friends’ faces are clear. There they were, together on their first trip to Camp Wild Rose.
Ioppolo, now 28, was about 5 years old when that picture was taken. Camp Wild Rose in St. Charles, which has since closed in recent years, was a popular site for many other Girl Scout troops, and that place is a thread woven into her memory, packed with lessons on leadership and sisterhood.
“That was really one of the most formative experiences, really, of my entire childhood and young adulthood,” said Ioppolo, an Oak Park native, who joined Girl Scouts when she was a kindergartener at Ascension School and stayed with the program throughout high school.
She talked about the service projects, the summers she spent outdoors and being around girls her own age, some of whom became lifelong friends. All those things were part of something bigger — an experience, Ioppolo said, that she hopes the next generation of girls will have.
She belonged to a pair of troops in Oak Park that were once part of Service Unit 409, one of the oldest and biggest Girl Scout programs in the Chicago area. Service Unit 409, over a century old, folds into the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, and currently comprises 91 troops, pulling in dozens of girls from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park and is actively looking for new members and volunteers to continue its expansion. Girls between the ages of 5 and 18 are welcome and invited to participate, said Christine Graves, manager of Service Unit 409.
For Ioppolo and Graves, the Girl Scout program is all about creating a space for girls to grow, learn and thrive.
“I believe in the mission, building both confidence and character,” said Graves, a mother from Oak Park and a 20-year Girl Scout volunteer. “That’s always needed out in the world. You always want your girls to grow up to be strong and resilient.”
Like Ioppolo, Graves became a Girl Scout in kindergarten and recalled being with the program until seventh grade when her troop disbanded. She used to be “badge crazy” and still remembers the joy she felt from learning new skills. And like Ioppolo, she also loved camping, going horseback riding and being outdoors.
“I remember one of our camping trips. It rained for two days almost straight,” Graves said. “What do you take away from that? Well, you can [either] take away that you had a terrible time and whine about it, or you can try and make the best of it.
“So we stayed inside the tent and played cards and made the best of it. And, things like that I’ve carried into my life to make the best of adversity. … You know, ‘Be prepared.’ It’s one of the Girl Scouts’ slogans.”
Graves added that she reunited with the Girl Scouts program in the early 2000s; by that point, she returned to the youth organization as a mother of two girls and a new volunteer, signing up to become a troop leader, co-chair food drives and a member of the service leadership team. And even after Graves’ daughters graduated from Girl Scouts, she carried on.
Girl Scouts is for the girls, she said, a place “where you can go and be who you are and not feel like you have to be anything other than yourself.”
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, she and local troop leaders prioritized togetherness with their girls. They didn’t want to lose that sense of camaraderie and hosted virtual activities so their girls could see each other and hang out.
“We delivered gingerbread houses to about 200 girls, and they decorated them,” said Graves of an online event Service Unit 409 initiated last year. “Then we had a virtual event where we went around and everybody showed off their gingerbread house. In April, once the weather was a little nicer and we could go outside, I organized a scavenger hunt throughout Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park that emphasized the environment.”
At its core, Girl Scouts is about having fun, said Graves, Ioppolo and Amelia Peloquin, a current Girl Scout and sixth-grader at Brooks Middle School in Oak Park. Peloquin said she enjoys every chance where she can be in her community to “make stuff” and do things with her troop mates.
And not even the pandemic can get in the way of that mission, Graves said.
“We’re here for the girls to help them continue to develop through this crazy, weird period of time that we’re in,” she said. “We want to give them that opportunity. We want people to know that we’re still here, and we’re still operating. We’re still going strong.”
To learn more:
For more information on the Girl Scouts, visit https://www.girlscouts.org/.
To learn how to join your local Girl Scouts, visit the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana at To learn how to join your local Girl Scouts, visit the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana at www.girlscoutsgcnwi.org/en/about-girl-scouts/join.html.