Girl Scout Aubriella and her mother Michelle Landolfa share their experience with gun violence to inspire others to create a safe community.
By Catherine Amoriello
It’s a chilly Saturday in April as I make my way up the steep slopes of Reservoir Park in Harrisburg. I follow the narrow, winding roads until suddenly the park pavilion comes into view. As I approach, the wind is brisk and biting and the clouds threaten rain. The only reprieve comes from brief bursts of sunlight through the clouds.
Despite the very unspring-like weather, a large group of adults and children assembles outside the pavilion. As I weave my way through the assemblage and reach the steps of the building, my eyes finally find what I’ve been seeking – a Girl Scout Cookie booth.
Not far from the booth I spot its owner, her identity given away by her bright blue Daisy vest which she wears proudly over a pink and purple ombré coat and a purple headband to match. Seven-year-old Aubriella darts about the pavilion, eager to join the group forming outside. Although selling Girl Scout Cookies is important work, Aubriella is also at the park to participate in a “lead by example” community cleanup.
The cleanup has brought Harrisburg community members together, many of them children, to disperse throughout the city streets to pick up trash. Tone Cook, founder of anti-gun violence group Michael’s Memory, organized the event to give children a safe space to socialize and show them they have power to influence change in their communities, including helping to decrease gun violence. It provides adults the opportunity to show their younger counterparts how to make an impact, which the children can then pass along to their peers.
I join Aubriella and her mother Michelle Landolfa at a picnic table covered with snacks and treats for the volunteers. Aubriella sits between us, and while she’s straining to keep the cleanup crew in her sights so as not to miss her opportunity to join them, she kindly gives me the time of day (much in thanks to Landolfa’s prodding). After proving to Aubriella that I can indeed spell her name with my eyes closed, we take a more serious turn to explore one of the reasons she and Landolfa are in attendance at the cleanup event today – to share their own recent experience with gun violence.
In early March, Aubriella and Landolfa set up their first cookie booth outside of a store in Steelton. As they were selling cookies, gun shots rang out nearby, prompting Landolfa to rush Aubriella inside the store for cover.
There was fighting in the parking lot and then someone had a gun, Aubriella recounted.
One would think this act of violence would cause Aubriella to host her booth elsewhere, or maybe even close up shop for good. But in true Girl Scout fashion, Aubriella tapped into her bravery and returned to the store another day to reestablish her booth.
“She was scared, but we had made a commitment. It’s her first year in Girl Scouts,” Landolfa said of their decision to return to the site. “I felt like that wasn’t something that normally happens in our community. We set a goal so we had to go back out.”
Landolfa was unprepared for the community support Aubriella would receive. With an initial goal of selling 50 boxes of cookies during her first Girl Scout Cookie Season, Aubriella sold more than 3,200 boxes.
“We had the mayor come out, the fire department…We received very overwhelming support. They [Steelton community] have such a huge heart. They came out and really supported her,” Landolfa said.
I’m hardly surprised when Landolfa tells me she’s also a former Girl Scout. Upon meeting her she holds her tall frame with confidence, rocks her edgy teal hair slicked back in a chic ponytail and her brown eyes are bright with kindness and warmth. Her own experience as a Girl Scout and a lack of available local programming for children is what brought her and Aubriella to Girl Scouts.
“She’s really young, not a lot of schools have much programming for inner city kids. That’s why we got involved,” Landolfa said. “She’s really grown so much since she’s been in Girl Scouts.”
As our conversation nears its end, volunteers begin gathering inside the pavilion. Cook takes a moment to speak about how the cleanup is one of many stepping stones to creating a safe and beautiful community. He reminds the adults of their responsibility as role models to not just tell children to make a difference, but to show them how to make a difference. Many in the crowd nod their heads and audibly confirm their agreement.
Eventually, Cook waves Aubriella forward to stand before the volunteers. He asks her to share why she’s at the cleanup today. Her eyes dart across the crowd, taking in the faces and cell phones all pointed in her direction. She shifts nervously on her feet, and although quiet, she speaks.
“I’m going to be a good example. I’m going to clean up the park.”
Cook further clarifies Aubriella’s intent. “She’s going to be cleaning up to make a safe space for other kids in the community.”
Other children are then called to stand alongside Aubriella. Some appear as young as 2 years old, others are in their teens. Cook motions to the young group.
“This right here is what’s going to lead us.”