The Riverhead community is coming together to give The Butterfly Project — a new group for young girls created by Tijuana Fulford, 30, a Riverhead native — wings to soar.
The group is working on plans to create a non-profit organization, so that the Butterfly Effect Project can accept donations to fund future plans for the girls.
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.
The group expands the girls’ horizons with trips and community service projects. Recently, the girls took a trip to Trimble’s in Cutchogue to learn about nature and to bring home some plants for their moms, for Mother’s Day.
On Saturday, the girls met at the library, making lunches for a Project EAT program. After making the lunches, the girls walked around Riverhead, giving lunches to the needy.
Community members have pitched in with donations, supplies, and guest visits to the girls’ meetings.
Working toward becoming a non-profit organization, Fulford said Aquebogue resident Karen McDonald “has been my guardian angel.”
Before plans commenced to seek not-for-profit status, Fulford said she was working weekends, cleaning a doctor’s office to make extra money to fund the group.
“My goal is to get a 15-passenger van to transport the girls because right now, I am doing that with the help of volunteers,” Fulford said, who drives girls in her own car. “If we had a van I could take everyone at one time and we would save money when we travel.”
McDonald said she is working to help her friend Fulford with the conversion to non-profit status, which involves first becoming incorporated and then applying to New York State for a special tax exemption status for the group.
“It means all donations and grants the group receives are tax-deductible for the donors, greatly increasing people’s desire to help us with funding, and it means the group itself is tax exempt in terms of what we obtain,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s son Gregory Gillen, a labor lawyer who’s an associate and with Lamb and Barnosky in Melville, has agreed to assist pro bono in leading the project, she said.
The mission is one born of Fulford’s dedication to the young women she inspires, McDonald said.
“Watching Tia mentor these girls is literally amazing. Seeing their faces when she praises their schoolwork and gives awards, observing them listening to guest speakers and asking questions, learning about making the right choices, having self-esteem and being kind to people less fortunate — she is changing their futures,” she said. “There are many great programs for older girls. My own kids went to Riverhead schools — excelled, went to college, are professionals. I was able to give them the exposure Tia is giving these girls who might not receive it at home, so they will be ready to pursue what’s available when they get older. She is changing the path for these girls, and she is changing quite a few adults along the way — raising awareness and making us see what can be done in our own community. Her huge heart and relentless work to make this happen is extremely inspiring.”
“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 brainchild, 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.”
Fulford hopes to inspire her group of young girls the same way she was motivated to aspire to new heights by Wells.
And so, the seed for the Butterfly Effect Project took root and has begun to blossom. 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.
Fulford believes that every young woman has the power to change her own destiny. “We are the authors of our books,” she said.
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.
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 also 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.
Fulford’s spirit has sparked a pay-it-forward effect, as community members step up to join the project and propel the girls toward their destinies.
“My family and I will do anything to help her and I am so thrilled the community has embraced the project as well,” McDonald said.
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