Samantha Cunniff is a candidate for the highest rank in Girl Scouts and to earn it, she has created a whimsical way to visit Verona’s newest park. This morning, Cunniff and the Verona Environmental Commission (VEC) unveiled a fairy trail in the Grove Historic Park & Nature Preserve on Grove Avenue across from Reid Place.
What’s a fairy trail, you ask? It’s a path through a woods with surprises along the way: Small houses, mostly built from natural materials, that look as if they were home to mythical spirits. The houses along the Grove Park Fairy Trail were crafted by Verona Girl Scouts under the direction of Cunniff, a 2021 graduate of Cedar Grove High School. “I think it’s really creative,” she says, “and it will hopefully bring joy to everyone who walks through.”
The impetus for Verona’s fairy trail came from Michael Auteri, a VEC member who had hiked the fairy trail in South Mountain Reservation with his daughter. “She was obsessed with it,” he says. So Auteri reached out to her Daisy troop leaders to see if something similar could become a Scout project here. That call led him to Cunniff’s mother, a long-time Scout leader in Cedar Grove.
“My entire family has been in Scouting since before I was born,” Cunniff says. Her father has also been a troop leader and both he and her two older brothers are Eagle Scouts. But the pandemic, and being a troop of one, made Girl Scouting hard for Cunniff as she approached its final milestone, the Gold Award.
The fairy trail project brought Cunniff back to a bigger troop setting. To help meet the 80 hours of work mandated for a Gold Award project, she invited Girl Scouts from Verona and Cedar Grove to an Earth Day clean-up of Grove Park. It was established by the VEC and Junior Woman’s Club in 2018 on a property that had once been home to Henry B. Whitehorne, the namesake of Verona’s middle school. The girls re-cleared the park’s trails and gathered bark, twigs and other elements to build their houses. Several troops then participated in two-hour house-building sessions outdoors.
Kate Kelly, the leader of Verona Girl Scouts Troop 20485 for girls entering 6th grade, stressed that the work was not part of any badge requirement. “We looked at it as community service and learning,” she says. “And having an opportunity to learn from a senior Girl Scout was tremendous.” Her girls were one of six troops that built houses for the trail, while others painted rock decorations.
In Rita Scelfo’s Troop 20740, the house building became a way to also build collaboration among its 5th graders, who were randomly paired with another troop member for the work. “One of our goals is for them to to see that they can be friendly with someone without that person being their best friend,” she says.
Cynthia Holland had two groups in the project: Troop 20515, which just finished first grade, and Troop 20528, which completed fourth grade. The Daisies, who are also led by Carolyn Chakmakjian and Colleen Fay, actively participated in the park clean-up, and saw how much litter had been left there. “Much to their parents’ dismay, the Daisies took particular delight in pointing out the amount of broken glass in the park,” says Holland. “They also made a valiant effort to remove an old shag carpet that appears to have been largely reclaimed by nature.”
Holland, who was just elected to Town Council, says the Daisy Trail work had different meaning for Troop 20528, which she leads with Carol Lynn Moy and Joanna Rybak. “More than anything else, we believe these girls took away a valuable lesson about female leadership and community service,” she says. “If the girls in Troop 20528 continue as Junior Girl Scouts in 5th grade, these girls can follow Samantha’s example and earn the Bronze award for a community service project.”
To win Girl Scout approval for the project, Cunniff had to make a written proposal and then track all the steps and all the hours she put in to make it happen. She used money earned in the cookie sale to buy some supplies and got Caputo Brothers Tree Service to donate the 45 tree slices that were used as house bases.
Meg Prout, a Girl Scout Life Member who was Cunniff’s mentor for the project, applauds her tenacity. “Samantha had been searching for a meaningful project for her Girl Scout Gold Award for some time and although other projects had surfaced, she wasn’t satisfied with them,” Prout says. “This project focused her attention on a neighboring community’s need to enhance an underused, natural, outdoor area. Here, she was able to put her creative talents to good use and her ability to work with local youth and adults to make a positive impact on Verona’s Grove Park that will draw young and old alike.”
Cunniff, who plans on majoring in arts education at Sacred Heart University this fall, hopes the public will appreciate all the work that went into building the trail and its fairy houses. “It’s a simple walking trail that’s good for little kids,” she says, “in a park in the middle of a neighborhood.”