Debra Eckerman-Pitton, PhD, current Minnesota resident and retired education professor, grew up in Mason City as a Girl Scout. Growing up a Girl Scout, she spent a lot of time at Camp Tanglefoot (formerly Camp Gaywood), traveled on many backpacking trips, and even attended the 1972 National Convention.
“Back then, there were no sports for girls. The opportunity for leadership was not available, except for (Girl) scouting. Gertrude Fink (former Camp Gaywood Director) was great at providing those,” she said.
After growing out of Girl Scouts, Eckerman-Pitton still remained connected as an employee and later a Troop Leader and cookie mom for her own daughters. But it wasn’t until many years later that she realized the true value of her Girl Scouting background.
In 2010, Eckerman-Pitton took a class of 21 college students on a school trip to Peru. The group spent two weeks teaching English to children and adults in the local community. The trip was intended to be an immersive experience for education and healthcare students to work with less fortunate in a different country.
At the end of their time in Peru, the students were rewarded for their hard work with at trip to Machu Pichu, somewhere they could only access by train. Unfortunately, that January had been a very rainy season and a flooded river tore out the railroad tracks after their arrival.
“We couldn’t get home,” she said. Their group, along with many other locals and tourists, were stranded.
Eckerman-Pitton suddenly found herself faced with the challenge of finding safe housing, food, water, and money for the group of students. And most importantly, she was faced with keeping everyone calm.
“The students got progressively more nervous about how long we’d be there,” she said. What she thought would be an overnight stay, ended up being much longer.
“My American ego was like, we have plane tickets tomorrow, let’s go! But it was Peru, it could be months,” she said.
With what Eckerman-Pitton describes now as privilege, their group stayed safely in a hotel for the 4 days they remained stranded. Eventually, they were escorted by the army and evacuated by helicopter.
As she returned home with the students, word traveled quickly, and local journalists picked up their story. Eckerman-Pitton’s mother shared in an interview that Debra had “used all of her Girl Scout tricks to keep everybody calm and everybody safe.” At first thought, Eckerman-Pitton scoffed at the comment, thinking of her other life experiences, including a PhD and decades of teaching. But now, she agrees.
“I remember thinking, ‘it’s like rainy days at camp,’ and grabbed a piece of paper and created a schedule and check in times…Girl Scouting was at the heart,” she said.
After returning, Eckerman-Pitton often reflected on that experience in Peru and all that she and the students learned.
“I felt, maybe a book would see the value of travel internationally and how we [as Americans] should be. Who are we as Americans abroad, and how should we act?” she said.
Ten years later, she did just that. In August 2020, Eckerman-Pitton published her book, No One Left Behind: An unexpected educational adventure at Machu Picchu, where she tells the full story.
Girl Scouting played a large role in Eckerman-Pitton’s life, and equipped her with the tools and skills she needed in the future.
“Scouting gives you the opportunity to see who you are as a woman, and who you can be as a woman… Scouting gave me a vision beyond Mason City, with the travels I had. I wanted to see the world,” she said.
Learn more about her book here.