NEWTOWN, Conn. — Eight of the 12 girls killed in last week's shooting rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School were Girl Scouts. Two troops of the smallest scouts were shattered. One that had 10 members now has five. Another troop of five girls now has just two.
Girl Scouts are particularly active in Newtown, with 125 troops involving more than 700 girls, and now as the town struggles to overcome its grief, Girls Scouts are relying on their troop friendships and activities to recover a bit of their lost sense of normalcy.
"We were together when we were strong, and we're going to stay together now that we're Newtown Strong," said Kelsea Morshuk-Allen, a 16-year-old Girl Scout, using a term that is emerging as a sign of this town's resilience.
Small indications of that attitude are everywhere, such as the sign "Newtown Strong" that appeared under the scoreboard when the high school basketball team returned to the court Wednesday. Or the campaign to create a memorial fund from the sale of thousands of $2 "Newtown Angels" bracelets, a campaign with the slogan, "Newtown Strong. Newtown Proud." Or Kelsea's "Gone but not Forgotten" T-shirt made in a high school graphics class.
Kelsea and her friend Brooke Hadgraft, 15, met a decade ago as Daisy Girl Scouts, as the troops for kindergartners and first-graders are called. Those killed in the massacre were Daisies. Now Kelsea and Brooke and their fellow scouts plan to mentor the remaining girls in the two affected troops — all of whom survived the shooting at the Sandy Hook school.
Scout leaders are planning on combining the two troops that lost eight girls into one and pairing the little girls who lost so many of their friends with Kelsea's troop of older scouts.
A monument to the lost girls is being planned, as is a major event in January, where the 3 million women and girls involved in Girl Scouts worldwide will remember the eight little Girl Scouts of Newtown.
Robbin Chaber Allen, Kelsea's mother and the chief Girl Scouts organizer in Newtown, said the mother of one of the girls who died called her and urged her to use scouting as a way of remembering the girls. Four of the mothers whose daughters were killed are also Girl Scout leaders, Allen said.
"She wanted to make sure we did something that was positive, as opposed to just being about sadness," she said. "We hope they lean on us and grow with us. We have to take this and make something beautiful come out of it."
Brooke, who like Kelsea is a sophomore at Newtown High, said she had worked with one of the girls who was killed when she was in a child development class that pairs high school students with pre-schoolers. In a small town with so many people involved in scouting, nearly everyone has a personal connection to someone who was killed.
"There was a lot to cry about," Brooke said. "It's a lot to recover from, but we have to get stronger, and we will. That's the truth."
The Boy Scouts are also popular here in this town of rolling hills and wide open spaces where the scouts camp and organize public service projects such as building houses for the poor. About 550 boys and 180 adult volunteers participate in Boy Scouts.
Two of the eight boys killed were from the same Cub Scouts pack, and three other members of the 80-boy pack lost a sibling, said Tony Vogl, a Boy Scouts spokesman. In a show of solidarity, Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts from far beyond Newtown attended the funerals held here this week.
Kelsea and Brooke were at Newtown High School, about a mile and a half away from the shooting on Dec. 14 when officials declared a lockdown. A security guard ushered them out of the hallway and into the nearest classroom and ordered them to stay inside. School officials took everyone's phones to keep them from hearing news of the massacre.
The girls said they thought it was a drill, so they found seats together and pulled out their biology books to study for an upcoming test on viruses. "Luckily, me and Kelsea were together," Brooke said.
After an hour, they heard the helicopters overhead. The girls said the vice principal came on the loudspeaker and said there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and asked that students with siblings at Sandy Hook gather in a lecture hall.
Only when they got their phones back did they realize the extent of the horror. Social media was ablaze with the shootings, and kids gathered around the school to watch live streams of the news coverage.
That night, Kelsea and Brooke's troop had their Girl Scout Christmas party scheduled at Kelsea's house. They decided not to cancel so they could gather together for strength. They gave each other hugs and Secret Santa gifts and watched Christmas movies. "Everything was still unfolding, but we were together," Kelsea said, sitting at her family's wooden kitchen table, a few miles from Sandy Hook. "It was safe, and we could celebrate what we still have."
"It made us closer," Brooke said. "I was grateful that we had each other, and we have each other because of Girl Scouts."
Kelsea said that mentoring the surviving younger Girl Scouts would help them heal. She said she's not trained in grief counseling, but that doesn't matter.
"You don't have to be certified to love little kids," she said.