It sounds like something you’d read on the inside flap of an adventure novel.
A family of five takes a 25-day sailing journey across the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, they conquer challenges, acquire invaluable life skills and strengthen the bonds of family. When they arrive in the South Pacific, the three daughters — forever changed by the journey — use what they’ve learned to give back to local communities in need.
That was the Vannini family’s plan, at least. In March 2020, they were all set to leave on their catamaran to begin a real-life adventure to Tonga and Fiji.
But then the pandemic showed up in full force.
While sailing the high seas might seem like the ultimate act of social distancing, the family was understandably concerned that ports along their journey would be closed or unsafe to visit.
So they adapted, choosing to wait out the pandemic in their floating home, called S/V Love & Luck.
They’ve spent the past year in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Dad Mark Vannini and mom Julie Zollmann have continued to home-school (or “boat-school,” to borrow Mark’s term) daughters Heidi (17), Lucy (15) and Sally (13). Taking full advantage of their surroundings, they’ve also made time to fish, hike and roast marshmallows on deserted beaches.
Scouting has been there through it all. Last month, Heidi, Lucy and Sally joined the Inaugural Class of Female Eagle Scouts.
“The values of Scouting are beliefs I try to live by,” Heidi says. “I love adventure, and Scouting seemed like the right spot to learn and grow in that environment.”
For Lucy, learning and growing meant building confidence.
“Becoming an Eagle Scout taught me that if I work hard on a goal and believe in myself, I can accomplish anything,” she says. “This gives me confidence about being a leader and pursuing hard things.”
Sally admits she has the competitive streak you might expect from the youngest child. But on the journey to become an Eagle Scout, she didn’t feel that race to be first.
“Our family is all super supportive of each other,” she says. “We all cheered each other on, and when one of us was having a rough patch, we all helped each other in any way we could.”
Lone Scouts, together
The sisters are Lone Scouts, which means they aren’t in a troop but still get to enjoy the Scouting experience.
The entire family became a de facto troop, with each of the girls taking the lead in certain merit badges and Scouting activities. They held troop meetings once a week. They kept advancement records. They earned merit badges on land and sea.
Julie served as merit badge counselor for a few badges, but most required the girls to find merit badge counselors back in the United States.
Mark and Julie took photos and videos of the girls completing requirements, which were then edited and emailed to the merit badge counselor.
When live Zoom meetings were necessary, Julie and Mark played a role familiar to any Scout parent: transportation coordinator.
“It was my job to provide ports with reliable Wi-Fi when the girls were ready for a meeting,” Julie says. “That could mean a full-day sail and a bumpy anchorage” just to reach the right place before the right time.
In addition to earning Eagle-required merit badges like Emergency Preparedness and Sustainability, the Scouts chose elective merit badges that were especially applicable to daily life aboard a boat. That included Kayaking, Fishing and Scuba Diving.
Logistics can be difficult when you’re trying to earn merit badges on a boat, so Julie researched places the family could visit that would provide advancement opportunities — and a change of scenery.
They hiked a volcano on the Coronado Islands, studied birds on Isabel Island and camped on the beach near a narrow gap in the rocks known as Animas Slot.
Navigating the Eagle project
Lone Scouts complete Eagle Scout service projects, too, and the Vannini girls made theirs count.
- Heidi created a library program on the topic of social justice, making videos, conducting interviews and hosting webinars through the public library in Wilmette, Ill. (their former home).
- Lucy produced video and digital content for the nonprofit Girls on the Run-Chicago.
- Sally made blankets and dog toys for Barb’s Dog Rescue, a nonprofit in Sonora, Mexico.
“Through the execution and completion of their Eagle projects, they learned how to do things that are — or at least were — uncomfortable, such as leading adults and asking others to do work for them,” Mark says. “Over the course of their journey, they have certainly become more self-confident.”
In her words: Heidi
Some of the best Scouting experiences are also the toughest.
For Heidi, that includes earning the Personal Fitness merit badge. Completing a 12-week physical fitness program is difficult enough on dry land. But on a boat moving through the ocean? No chance.
Heidi completed the Eagle-required badge while traveling through Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico. At each stop, she would run a mile and record her results. Some of these runs were on sand or gravel, while others were on pavement. (Scorching, unforgiving pavement.)
“The sun was so, so hot,” Heidi says. “At 10 in the morning, it was not unusual to see temperatures around 100 degrees.”
But she endured, forming a workout group with her sisters to complete daily exercises, runs and yoga.
“We continue to do these workouts, and it is an important part of my life now,” she says. “There’s something special about running through the streets of El Salvador that makes this merit badge one that stands out.”
In her words: Lucy
Lucy knew she wanted to be an Eagle Scout from the day she first put on her uniform.
That’s what drove her to work so hard over the past two years, and it’s what made her Eagle Scout board of review so nerve-racking.
She checked (and rechecked) her paperwork, looked online for common board of review questions and reviewed the Scouts BSA Handbook.
“I even had a practice session with my grandparents over Zoom,” she says. “I was feeling so nervous and so excited at the same time.”
As soon as the Zoom began, those nerves melted away. These three volunteers — Ms. Meyers, Mr. Nied and Mr. Estshur — weren’t there to pepper her with trick questions. They were there to have a conversation about her Scouting journey. They were all on the same team.
“I had fun answering all of the questions, telling them stories of my Scouting adventures,” Lucy says. “I felt confident and excited to be there. Everyone even got to see my 65-pound dog, who, to my fear, decided to walk behind me and say hi to the camera for a little bit.”
Mr. Nied sent Lucy to a Zoom “breakout room” so the volunteers could deliberate. It felt like hours but was actually about five minutes. When Mr. Nied returned, he congratulated Lucy. She had passed.
“A huge smile broke across my face as I received hugs from my parents and sisters,” Lucy says. “I started happily writing to my grandparents, teachers, all the helpers in my Scouting journey — and thanking them.”
In her words: Sally
Adventure has been a constant presence in Sally’s life.
She hiked the Grand Canyon when she was 7 and the Teton Crest Trail at 9. Through it all, a certain kind of person always stood out to Sally as a role model: “people who go for what they want.”
“When the BSA started to allow girls into their program, I wanted to be someone that girls and young women all over the country could look up to,” Sally says. “I wanted to show that females can achieve their goals and do Scouting just as well as males.”
It hasn’t been easy. There have been practical challenges, like getting a merit badge pamphlet when you have no mailing address. And there have been physical challenges, like the 23.6-mile hike up and down the tallest peak in Panama to complete a requirement for the Hiking merit badge.
But what Sally will remember most from her time in Scouting so far are the people she’s met along the way.
In 2019, the Vannini family went to a camporee in Colorado. It was a rare chance to earn a merit badge with an in-person counselor. (The Vanninis used Zoom long before COVID made it a household name.)
At the camporee, Sally and her sisters camped near a Scouts BSA troop for girls.
“They were super friendly and invited us to be part of their group,” she says.
The next morning, Sally decided to try the Horsemanship merit badge, taught by two mounted police officers from Boulder, Colo. She was a little anxious but excited to ride a horse for the first time.
“They certainly had seen a lot and were super great horseback riders,” Sally says. “I learned how to ride a horse better and even got to wear a police helmet!”
Walking back to her tent, Sally realized that one of the girls she was camping with was in her merit badge class. They walked back together, talking the whole time.
“Later that day, my new friend asked me to join her troop in a skit,” Sally says. “We ended up having so much fun. I am so glad that I went to Horsemanship that day!”
In their words: Mom and Dad
Julie Zollmann and Mark Vannini open doors to opportunities for their daughters but let the girls walk through them.
“It’s important to provide opportunities that your kids can take advantage of,” Julie says. “There is a delicate balance of finding opportunities and then stepping back and watching your kids take over.”
Mark agrees. Parents can’t complete the requirements themselves, but they can serve as cheerleaders to “help their Scouts push through any roadblocks that come up along the way.”
A story on the horizon
I can’t tell this story without also acknowledging Emily Prymula, communications director for the Northeast Illinois Council, which is the family’s home council.
Julie Zollmann contacted Prymula in 2019, shortly before young women could officially join Scouts BSA, to ask about signing up her daughters as Lone Scouts.
Prymula helped them register as Lone Scouts and offered any support the council could provide. She followed their journey with great interest and felt proud to see all three sisters become Eagle Scouts.
“They are outstanding young women,” Prymula says. “To see these exemplary young women take this opportunity and absolutely blow it out of the water validated my love for Scouting in a deeply meaningful way. I couldn’t be more proud to work for the BSA right now.”