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Promises kept: Girl Scout troop’s longevity honors leader lost to cancer

Modesto Girl Scout Troop 3380 leader Joanne Serpa, right, holds a large picture of Kristen Machado as she, Claire Machado, middle, and other members of the troop share memories of their former troop leader during a gathering at Serpa’s home in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Kristen Machado formed the troop in 2003 and led it for nine years. Seven of those, she also battled sarcoma cancer – a fight she lost Oct. 29, 2012, less than two weeks before her 40th birthday.
Modesto Girl Scout Troop 3380 leader Joanne Serpa, right, holds a large picture of Kristen Machado as she, Claire Machado, middle, and other members of the troop share memories of their former troop leader during a gathering at Serpa’s home in Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. Kristen Machado formed the troop in 2003 and led it for nine years. Seven of those, she also battled sarcoma cancer – a fight she lost Oct. 29, 2012, less than two weeks before her 40th birthday. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto Girl Scout Troop 3380 always was, and always will be, “Kristen’s troop” – even now that its 12 members have graduated high school and are going their own ways into adulthood. Joanne Serpa, troop leader for the past four years, said she’s been just the caretaker, though the young women know she’s been much more. One likened her to a “fairy godmother.”

Kristen Machado formed the troop in 2003 and led it for nine years. Seven of those, she also battled sarcoma cancer – a fight she lost Oct. 29, 2012, less than two weeks before her 40th birthday.

Months before her death, as her Scouts were nearing the start of high school and some wanted to start work on the Girl Scout Silver Award, Machado’s energy was low and she turned to her friend Serpa for help.

“She was kind of lamenting who was going to take care of the girls to go to camp and our Putting on the Hits (talent show), which is a Girl Scout activity. Who was going to help the girls do all these things?” said Serpa, who’d just “retired” after 19 years as a Scout leader. “And I said I would, and she said ‘Do you promise?’ And I said, as long as the Machado family is involved, I will be involved also.”

Machado laid a strong foundation for the troop, which formed at Lakewood Elementary, and Serpa said her own goal was to respect her friend’s vision for Troop 3380. That vision was simple but important to her mother, said Machado’s daughter, Claire, as several of the girls gathered at Serpa’s home Tuesday to reminisce.

“She started it to be involved in my life and all of her children’s lives,” Claire said. “I’m the oldest, so it was a new venture for her. It was more a focus on friendship and how girls can connect with each other in a positive way and … form lasting friendships and relationships. And kind of beyond strengthening friendships, it would strengthen their confidence in themselves and their success later in life. And I think it’s definitely been fulfilled in all of us.”

Serpa’s kitchen was full of laughter – a hallmark of Troop 3380 meetings – as she and the girls recalled Machado.

“Kristen was never a traditional Girl Scout leader, and our troop never was traditional troop,” said Ariel Mendlin. “… We never had the most badges on our vests or the most awards on our shelf, but we all stuck together through high school, which is really impressive.”

Staff with the Girl Scouts Heart of Central California council agreed. Serpa was praised for her efforts in keeping Machado’s troop together and also her long run with her own daughter’s troop.

“She is responsible mainly for the best retention in a service unit that I have ever seen,” said Sarah Sanford, the council’s senior director of membership recruitment. “It was around 85 percent and largely because of two traditions she made sure remained. One was a camp called Camp Groovy, another was a talent show called Putting on the Hits.”

Serpa co-founded the camp – held annually at Camp Sylvester at Pinecrest Lake for girls in the Scenic Modesto service unit – in 2002. Though she’s no longer involved, the camp and the show are going strong.

Machado and Serpa taught the girls the importance of commitment, said Scout Samsara Edward. “She always told us she wanted us to stay in Girl Scouts through senior year,” she said. “She really wanted us to stay together as a group. And Joanne also made us commit to this troop.”

Olivia Boweman said as the girls were entering junior high, Machado asked each if she would stay in 3380 through high school. “I gave her a solid ‘yes.’ 

True to her word, Olivia, whose family moved to Visalia at the start of her high school years, still comes to Modesto twice a month to meet with her troop friends. It always was nice to know she had a place to go after school to share sisterhood, she said. “I kept coming back because I made the promise and I knew I had friends here I could laugh with. I don’t think we’ve ever had a meeting where we didn’t laugh.”

Laughter didn’t come easily at the time of Machado’s health decline and death. “When Kristen got sick,” Ariel said, “obviously it was really hard on all of us. But the fact Joanne was willing to take on another troop … I always tell her she was like our fairy godmother almost.”

After Machado’s funeral, “we all came together and we were hugging and we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Mary-Kate Liukkonen said to Serpa on Tuesday, “and you told us, ‘I’m going to be here for you, don’t worry.’ … It was a stress relief off everyone’s shoulders.”

After Machado’s long battle, her final decline was rapid. She’d had her shoulder and arm amputated and went into remission. “She was hoping that would take care of it,” Serpa said. “They thought they had it isolated. … She did everything she could because she loved her kids. And she wanted to be there for them.”

Machado was “fine” in June 2012, Serpa said, but gone four months later. She kept her strong faith, bright spirit and sense of humor even after the surgery, her friend said. When asked how she was doing, Machado would quip, “I’ve lost five pounds.”

Added Claire, “I mean, I lived with her and I didn’t know it was getting super serious – she didn’t want anyone else to bear her burden for her.”

On Tuesday, Claire brought to Serpa’s house a big headshot of her mom, taken about a month before her death. It was framed with glued-on mementos from Camp Groovy. The troop made “Flat Kristen” – inspired by the children’s book character Flat Stanley – to take anywhere “real Kristen” couldn’t be in her final weeks.

After Machado’s death, the photo was taken to Camp Groovy every year. “Flat Kristen was a big part of us,” Serpa said.

In a quiet moment outside her home Tuesday, as the girls continued to chat inside, she again reflected on her friend’s strength and legacy. “She taught these girls how to live,” she said, “and she taught them how to die.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

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