The cluster of little girls gathered in Trimble’s Nursery in Cutchogue Wednesday gasped in awe as they saw a butterfly flitting about the lush plants in a warm greenhouse.
Anne Trimble, owner of the nursery, was giving the girls, ranging from ages five to 13, a talk on how plants grow, how to pot plants, and explaining photosynthesis and the magic of nature — when she gently captured the butterfly in her hands and let it soar free outside, flying high into the sky.
The image was particularly meaningful for the girls, all members of the Butterfly Effect Project, a new group created by Tijuana Fulford, 30, a Riverhead native who now lives in Mastic Beach.
Fulford created the group after finding that some girls were not included in Girl Scout ceremonies because they simply could not afford the dues.
For Fulford, whose childhood was challenging, that hurt hit home. But rather than getting angry or bitter, she looked to the positive and created the brand-new, and absolutely free, group for girls, which meets bi-monthly, for now, at the Riverhead Free Library.
On Wednesday, the girls took a trip to Trimble’s to learn about nature and to bring home some plants for their moms, for Mother’s Day.
“I want the girls to see where they live,” Fulford said, adding that role models should be real women, working hard, rather than out-of-reach celebrities. “I grew up in the Riverhead area but I’d had never been to the aquarium until I was a lot older, not until just recently, because of finances. My parents couldn’t afford to do things with me.”
Fulford grew up in a big family. “I had a rough background,” she said. “My dad was addicted to crack cocaine. It was hard. We’d wake up sometimes and we didn’t have anything to eat, no electricity. All we had was each other.”
With four sisters and one little brother, Fulford said her mother was “very dependent” on her, the middle child. “She’d call me her brain child, and I’d have to do her paperwork. But I was only 10 years old. I didn’t get to do what normal 10-year-olds would do.”
When she began working in her early teens, Fulford worked three jobs, babysitting, at McDonald’s, and at a dollar store. “My dad was in rehab when I was 14, and it was up to me to make sure my mom had money to take care of my sisters and brother.”
In addition, Fulford helped to raise her oldest sister’s children and a cousin. “It was very challenging,” she said.
Then a woman stepped into Fulford’s life who changed everything.
Former Riverhead Town historian Justine Wells, of Aquebogue, was paired with Fulford at a program kicked off by the Pulaski Street Elementary School. “I was 10, and Justine was in her 50s or 60s,” Fulford said. “I was thinking, ‘Great, I got the old white lady.’ Well, that old white lady literally saved my life.”
Wells, Fulford said, helped her to get her first library card. “I realized I enjoyed reading,” she said. The little girl helped Fulford with her Bicentennial research — and opened the door to a new way of life.
“She challenged me to step out of the box,” Fulford said. “It was very different, going to her house and eating dinner at 6:30 p.m. I never saw my parents sit down together at the table. At Justine’s house, we talked to each other. She asked me about my day. When I went out with Justine, that’s the only time I’d get to be a person, to go to the farmstand, or to the library, where I could sit in a quiet corner and read a book. “
She added, “I love Justine. She’s never turned her back on me, even when I’ve made silly decisions. When I got married, she was there.”
Fulford, who now works at East End Rheumatology as office manager, said Wells plays the same pivotal role in the lives of her three children, ages 9,6, and 5. “She’s never forgotten birthdays. Every holiday on the calendar, she’s aware of it. She’s giving my children the same thing that she instilled in me, and I’m so grateful to her.”
And now, Fulford hopes to inspire her group of young girls the same way she was motivated to aspire to new heights by Wells.
After she was married in October, Fulford said she attended a badge night at her girls’ Girl Scout troop in November and was disillusioned when girls who hadn’t attended meetings received badges, just because their parents had paid — while other girls received none, because the couldn’t afford dues.
“When I was younger, my mom put me in Girl Scouts and I couldn’t afford the vest. I had to get the sash, because it was cheaper,” she said. “Dues were $1 — four quartes, ten dimes, 100 pennies — but my parents couldn’t afford it. I never got to go on trips because I couldn’t afford it. I never ot the badges.”
That pivotal moment at the Girl Scouts meeting prompted Fulford to take a stand toward change.
“It reminded me of how much I hated how it felt, to be 11, and not to be able to hang out with the Girl Scouts; it’s supposed to be a sisterhood. I love the Girl Scouts and what they represent, but at the same time, people that can’t afford it become angry or resentful and the end result is jealousy and bitterness.” And, she added, “In the black community, we have a strict code of conduct. You dont’ talk about what’s going on in your house. It’s very strict. It’s very hard to get black youth to open up.”
Wells, however, made it easy for Fulford to share her feelings, and opened up the window of hope. “She took me shopping for my personals, to K-Mart or Walmart instead of the dollar store, and it was the first time I had a choice of whether or not I wanted to use Dove soap instead of some no-name brand, green soap.”
And so, the seed for the Butterfly Effect Project was sown. Fulford enlisted the help of her colleague in the office, Nancy Arviddson, as well as childhood friend Tonya Miles, and another woman, Sheree James, and the four women banded together to start finding girls for the group. “We had no money, no place to meet, nothing but an idea,” Fulford said.
But that didn’t stop them. “First I wrote down why I wanted the group, so I could understand it myself,” Fulford said. “I wrote about butterflies, which are very beautiful, but start out very ugly at one point, as caterpillars. But then they disappear and come back and they’re gorgeous.”
Fulford believes that every young woman has the power to change her own destiny. “We are the authors of our books,” she said.
Watching the girls blossom has been an amazing experience, Arviddson said. “What she’s teaching them is invaluable. Tia is young enough to be my daughter, but she’s taught me so much. She has a huge heart.”
The group started with 10 girls and is now up to around 17, Fulford said.
Each week the girls learn life lessons, including respect for elders, working hard in life, how to dress, tolerance, not to envy, how to write thank you notes, and the importance of education. And after a visit from a guest, the girls write in their journals, learning to express themselves and articulate their thoughts and feelings.
The girls enjoy a series of free trips, including an upcoming visit to the Holocaust Museum.
“I want the girls to know, while they always hear stories about black slaves, we are not the only people who had something bad happen to us. Just when you think you’ve had it bad, there is someone out there who’s had it worse,” Fulford said.
The girls also enjoy arts and crafts — and spend time giving back to others.
Recently, the girls made Easter baskets and handed them out to women and children at a shelter. They’re also planning a project, to make sandwiches and hand them out to the hungry — and hope to set up a cupcake station for the homeless at a Maureen’s Haven location next season.
“I want the girls to understand that everyone has a story, a past, and that the person could easily be us, if we make the wrong choices,” Fulford said.
Ahead, on May 31, the first annual BEP barbecue will be held at Ludlam Avenue park in Riverside, at 1 p.m., with the focus on old-fashioned fun, including jump rope, double Dutch, hopscotch, hula hoop contests and kickball. Guess are asked to turn off their cell phones; donations are welcomed.
Although the program only commenced in March, already, the girls, giggling and sharing stories at Trimble’s, are clearly close as sisters.
To motivate and inspire, Fulford has raffle tickets she distributes to the girls as a reward for good grades and hard work; the prizes are donated from local businesses.
At Trimble’s, after the girls finished potting their flowers, they gathered round a table for cookies and juice and shared what the BEP means to them.
Rayzhene Childress, 10, said she enjoys the trips and making new friends.
“We get to sit down and talk about stuff, about making friends, and making peace,” said Janiyla Miles, 9.
“I like how we learn brand-new things,” added Nataijah Miles, 9. “We explore.” She added that she loved helping make Easter baskets for the less fortunate.
Amaryana James, 9, agreed that she enjoyed helping others and raising money for those in need. Asked what she likes best about BEP, she said simply, “Everything.”
Naomi Cichanowicz, 9, said she loves making new friends and especially enjoyed the trip to Trimble’s, where she learned about gardening. “I liked this one a lot,” she said.
Stephanie Berkeley, 12, also said Trimble’s was her favorite trip, adding that she loved everyone in the group; Krystianna Kimbrough, 10, agreed, and said meeting new friends was one of her favorite parts.
Adriana Williams, 7, agreed. “We learn how to act with people,” she said. “We learn more about the world. We learn how to be successful.”
And that, Fulford said, is her mission, her goal, as she inspires young girls to reach for new heights and bright horizons.
The girls, she said, created their own pledge: “I am strong, I am beautiful, I am thankful, I am important, I am the future…. and we are the Butterfly Effect Project.”
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Lisa Finn
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