Community efforts bring new life to iconic Girl Scout camp

Girl Scouts of the USA has a long history of giving girls the chance to learn vital life skills including cooperation, problem-solving, and decision-making. In South Florida, they have always made their presence known, typically by being great young saleswomen outside of Publix selling cookies. 

Their great business skills can be traced back to 1945 when they bought Camp Mahachee for $3337, using the money they earned from selling cookies. Ever since, the 11-acre property has been a safe space where young girls can enjoy the outdoors.

Located east of Old Cutler Road just south of Matheson Hammock Park and north of Fairchild Tropical Gardens, the historic campground has evolved to include a bathhouse, lodge and eight cabins. 

Camp Mahachee commemorates its 75th anniversary this year, just in time to celebrate the restoration efforts that have been taking place for the past year. 

The camp had been ravaged by invasive plants suffocating the native hardwood hammock habitat. The sewer vine that covered the entrance of the park barely allowed visitors to walk in and, loyal to its name, left a bad odor. 

“You couldn’t walk a foot into the beginning part of this property” recalled Bill Kerdyk Jr., former vice mayor of Coral Gables. “The Girl Scouts weren’t using it, plus it was a horrible look. It smelled bad when you drove through it and it was just very problematic.”

Because his own kids were girl scouts and frequented Camp Mahachee, Kerdyk and his wife, Lynn, saw firsthand the camp’s decline. They decided they had to take action.

He contacted the Coral Gables Garden Club in the summer of 2022, and ever since, they’ve been working together to raise money with the Coral Gables Community Foundation and the Kerdyk family PARKnership fund.

The amount needed to complete the project is approximately $178,000. Thanks to community efforts and donations, nearly $130,000 has been raised so far.

The Camp Mahachee restoration project started in June 2022. The first phase involved removing invasive plants. A contractor was hired for the task.

But other aspects of the restoration were done by volunteers, including the girl scouts themselves. 

Girls Scouts Leading the Girl Scout Promise with Volunteers at October Tree planting. Photo by Rouchel Esposito.

Chelsea Wilkerson, CEO of Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida, stressed the importance of young girls being able to experience nature at Camp Mahachee. 

“Many of the girls who come here, it’s the first time they’ve had an opportunity to camp,” said Wilkerson. “It’s the first time they have an opportunity to hear night noises where they’re able to roam around at night in a safe outdoor space.”

“It’s really important to me that the girls not only have access to this kind of space but see us being good stewards of the resources that we have and in the restoration of these resources.”

Phase two of the project gave the scouts the chance to get their hands dirty and play an important part in the restoration. In October, about 200 girl scouts came together to plant 1,100 native trees to return the area to its original hardwood hammock. 

April 16 marks the start of phase 3. Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida will be hosting a pollinator garden planting event. More than 100 scouts are expected to attend,  planting trees and creating a pollinator garden. 

The neighboring Matheson Hammock Park will also be having a restoration project beginning this summer, which has inspired a partnership between the neighboring lands.

“We want to be good neighbors,’’ said Wilkerson. “We recognize that invasive species don’t recognize property lines or property boundaries. And so even if they’re doing their cleanup, if we don’t, then our seeds will continue to spread.”

While the entrance restoration plan is nearly complete, the rest of the property still needs work. But all involved in the restoration project are ready to take on that challenge.

“We really consider this to be the first of what will be a multi-phase effort to restore all of Camp Mahachee to its original beauty and splendor as an endangered habitat here in South Florida,’’ said Wilkerson. 

This story originally appeared on the Miami Herald

Milena Malaver is a senior majoring in Digital Journalism. She currently works as an editor for Caplin News and as social media manager for FIU's Society of Professional Journalist Chapter. Milena has an interest in covering local news.