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A Sign of the times: Girl Scouts alive and well in Connellsville

| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

A stroll through a small white house atop an East Crawford Avenue hill proves that the community spirit of Girl Scouting is alive and well in Connellsville.

For 70 years, the bungalow known as Connellsville's Little House has been home base for the good-deed-doing of girls, from preschool-age "Daisies" to senior high "Ambassadors."

There are currently about 300 Girl Scouts in Connellsville's Crawford Neighborhood, which includes all of Connellsville Area School District. Many troops meet weekly at the Little House; others at schools and private residences. All of the girls and their leaders are busy this month preparing for Sunday's open house that will celebrate 70 years of scouting at the Little House.

Visitors will easily find the local landmark. A colorful sign proudly heralds it, thanks to a Senior Girl Scout from Vanderbilt.

Bethany Lonce, 15, spent more than 40 hours on the two-sided wooden sign. It was done as a community project for her Silver Award, the second-highest in Girl Scouting. The Connellsville Area High School sophomore is already planning details for her Gold Award, the equivalent of a boy's Eagle Scout Award.

"I wanted to do something community-minded. That's what Girl Scouts do," said Lonce about the Little House sign.

To get started, she enlisted aid from Jeff Medvec of South Connellsville, assistant leader of Boy Scout Troop 101. "He was so helpful," she said, noting that Medvec constructed the posts from which the sign hangs. He also fashioned a blank wooden rectangle for Lonce to work on. Three-dimensional Girl Scout Trefoil logos were cut with a band saw; Lonce enameled them bright green.

Using stencils, she painstakingly carved block letters with a router, spelling out the Little House's name and address on both sides of the sign. "It took a long time."

Colors were then applied to the recessed text and coats of polyurethane swabbed over the entire wooden surface, sealing it against sun, rain and snow.

"I want to thank Mr. Medvec for his help," said Lonce, the daughter of Mike and Rhonda Lonce. "He provided the wood and the tools. All I had to do was buy the paint."

Lonce has enjoyed scouting for 11 years and plans to see it through until she graduates from high school. She began as a Daisy Scout when she was a 5-year-old preschooler at the former Building Blocks Preschool in Connellsville. "Mom signed me up and I liked it right away."

Since then, she has "flown up" from Daisy to Brownie to Junior to Cadette and, currently, to Senior Scout. She is currently a member of Troops 53101/53305 which are led by 30-year Girl Scout Leader Joan Emanuel. Next year, Lonce will become an Ambassador, the highest rank of Girl Scouts. "I've never regretted being part of Scouts," she said. "I've made a ton of friends."

Scouting has taken her and her sister scouts many places, including camping trips local and afar. This past July, a group traveled to Savannah, Georgia, to see the birthplace of Juliette Low, the founder of Girl Scouting in America. "We toured the Girl Scouts' first headquarters as well as other things," said Lonce.

2012 Girl Scout Centennial

It was a timely visit, as 2012 will mark the Centennial of American Girl Scouting.

The girls hold many fundraisers during the year, always keeping community spirit forefront. Lonce especially likes "Thinking Day," an event where troops each pick a different country to research and talk about.

"My friend Alexis DeMott coordinated a Thinking Day as her project for her Silver Award," Lonce explained. DeMott, also a sophomore, has been scouting for 10 years. She is the daughter of A.W. and Bobbie Jo DeMott of Dunbar.

Scouting isn't the only thing keeping Lonce busy. She plays baritone sax in the Falcon Marching Band, swims on the high school team (100-yard butterfly and relays), pitches for the Connellsville Softball League during summers, and is active in Scottdale Church of Christ's youth group (her family attends Vanderbilt Church of Christ).

Every New Year's Day, she and her dad plunge into the icy Youghiogheny River as members of the Polar Bear Club. "It was 36 degrees this year. That was pretty warm," joked her dad.

He said Bethany's many activities keep him and his wife busy. "It takes a lot of time, but it's worth it. In a couple of years this will all be over and we will miss it."

His daughter says that sometimes the kids at school tease her about being a Girl Scout, "but it's all good-natured. I just tell them it's fun and that's that," she declared.

Someday, Lonce hopes to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania or Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tennessee. She wants to teach, preferably music or history. One thing's certain: She won't quit scouting. "I plan to stay involved as an adult."

Little House turns 70

Say, Brother, Can You Spare a Can?

Those visiting Connellsville Little House on Sunday are asked to bring a nonperishable food item. All food collected will be given to Connellsville Area Community Ministries Food Bank, which has had a tough year due to the current recession. The open house will be held from 2 to 5 p.m.

Connellsville's Girl Scout Little House has morphed from drab to delightful -- and it's only taken 20 years.

The public is invited to see the renovations for themselves at an open house to be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the local landmark located at 144 E. Crawford Ave. (next to Immaculate Conception RC Church).

Purpose of the open house is twofold. It will celebrate the Little House's 70th anniversary and will kick off the Centennial of Girl Scouting in America, to be marked in 2012.

"So many people have been saying they can't wait to visit. They have such good memories of Girl Scouting and the Little House," said Joan Emanuel. She and Barb Bielecki are the last remaining charter members of the Connellsville Little House Society, the nonprofit group formed in 1990 to operate the Little House after the Girl Scouts of Southwestern Pennsylvania discontinued funding for the building.

In the 20 years since, tens of thousands of volunteer hours -- as well as thousands of dollars-worth of donated materials -- have transformed the East Crawford Avenue structure's interior. Once dark and dingy, the inside today is bright and cheerful. The inside was gutted and slowly remodeled over the past two decades.

From its spic-and-span tiled kitchen to the upstairs sleepover room with its sturdy wooden bunk beds (a special project completed by a Normalville Junior Girl Scout troop), to the spacious, brightly-lit downstairs meeting room, the Little House is proof that there are still people who give from their hearts and truly care about their community.

Nearly every night, a troop gathers at the Little House. That includes some Boy Scouts, too.

This past summer, Emanuel collected Girl Scouting items from donors, preparing for this month's open house. In a July Daily Courier article, she put out a plea for donations -- and has been overwhelmed by the response. Photos, letters, uniforms and other memorabilia came her way in a landslide.

On Sunday, visitors can reminisce about "The Good Old Days," starting from the Great Depression years of the 1930s to the 21st Century.

Emanuel said she's hoping some current Girl Scouts will model uniforms from the past. Cooking demonstrations -- a mainstay of scouting -- will be conducted outside, weather permitting.

"Golden Eaglet," a silent movie about World War I Girl Scouts, will be shown. An album of sing-along songs, donated by a former Girl Scout, will provide background music.

As a community project that day, patrons are asked to bring a nonperishable food item. "This has been a tough year for food banks," Emanuel said. All food collected will be given to Connellsville Area Community Ministries Food Bank.

Former Girl Scouts who visit will be asked to sign the guest registry -- and to share their memories about scouting and the Little House.

Emanuel stressed that members of Connellsville BPO Elks Lodge 503 are "wholeheartedly invited" to visit on Sunday. The Elks purchased the Little House from private owners in 1940. The lodge has leased it to the Girl Scouts for $1 per year ever since 1941.

"We thank them for their generosity and hope that they come to see for themselves how nice the house looks," Emanuel said. "Girl Scouting is still going strong in Connellsville."

Although there is no fee to attend the open house, donations are always welcome and needed, she added. "We hold fundraisers throughout the year. It costs a lot to keep the Little House in operation."

In that vein, the Little House Society will host a fund-raiser dinner on Oct. 10 at Nancy's Tea Room on North Pittsburgh Street. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling Emanuel at McCusker's Safe and Lock Co. at 724-628-0130.

Volunteers are welcome, too. "There is still much work to be done," Emanuel said.

Donations to the cause can be mailed to Connellsville Little House Society, P.O. Box 2044, Connellsville, PA 15425.

- - -

Girl Scouting in Connellsville dates back almost as long as Girl Scouts do.

The first troop in town was started in 1921, only nine years after the Girl Scouts were founded by Juliette Low.

A local high teacher named Miss Lewis organized Connellsville's first troop, which met at Greenwood United Methodist Church on the city's West Side.

Twenty years later, Girl Scout troops were thriving here and, thanks to the efforts of some Connellsville women and BPO Elks Lodge 503, the girls had an official Little House in which to gather.

First Little House: 1923

By the time Connellsville Little House was founded in 1941, the Little House concept was well-known nationally. In 1923, a small house in Washington, D.C., was donated to the Girl Scouts through the efforts of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The idea caught on and many Girl Scout councils opened Little Houses. Soon, the concept was sweeping the nation from coast-to-coast.

Connellsville's came into being in 1941, thanks to the Elks, who leased the residence to the Girl Scouts for $1 per year. They've been doing so ever since. Women who spearheaded the house's opening included Elizabeth Fletcher, Grace Biesel, Ermine Grimm, Peggy Snowden, and Mary Erhlich, according to local historical records.

The building was nearly 80 years old when Girl Scouts first met in its rooms. It was built as a private residence by the Connell family way back in 1852, before the Civil War. That makes the structure nearly 160 years old today, a significant fact in itself.

Eventually the Connells sold the house. When the Elks bought it in 1940, it was owned by the Newcomer family.

For 50 years, the Little House was maintained and operated by the local Girl Scout council. However, by 1990, the Little House concept was no longer widely accepted as in scouting's early years when troops and councils were fewer and smaller. The national trend was to close Little Houses.

Funding for such projects had become tighter for the Girl Scouts of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the council to which Crawford Neighborhood (Connellsville area's Girl Scout Troops) belongs. Council funding was axed and suddenly the familiar local meeting place found itself in peril.

In the spirit of "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," Connellsville Scout supporters took the bull by the horns.

The result was Connellsville Little House Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the local landmark open to Girl Scouts and other community-minded groups.

Led by such dedicated people as Joan Emanuel, Barb Bielecki, Faye Augustine, Peggy Swank and Janice Pritts -- and many others -- the society took on the burden as a labor of love.

Dances, dinners and other events raised funds back then, continuing to the present day. In the early 1990s, a $25,000 state grant was secured by then-Sen. J. William Lincoln.

A patient metamorphosis of the little white house on the hill began.

During the two decades since, the inside has been extensively remodeled, mostly with volunteer help. The outside also has been maintained.

"The only project that required hired labor was when we put a new roof on," said Emanuel, who has been a Girl Scout troop leader for 30 years.

"We can't possibly say thanks enough to everyone who has helped - and continues to help," she added, pointing out there is always more work to be done.

And, as any homeowner knows, maintenance is an infinite thing.

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