By Lindsey Steinberg
During the pandemic, forming meaningful connections was difficult for many people due to various hardships.
Yet for Coral Springs-based Girl Scout Troop 10883, the girls not only creatively utilized a Coral Springs Park as a safe place to meet face-to-face — but also laid the groundwork for an unexpected encounter that would result in a lifelong connection for their group – and change the lives of one local family.
While holding socially distanced meetings at Orchid Park in Coral Springs, Troop 10883 became curious about an older gentleman who regularly visited one of the park’s memorial trees; the memorial was for a woman named RuthAnn Gillooly.
“It seemed like he was trying to have a peaceful moment with the memorial,” Troop Leader and mom Kelli Matonak said. “So, we initially apologized for being rowdy; the girls had been home, virtually schooling for months, and wanted to play.”
The gentleman’s response was warm and kind. He shared that he was delighted to see children playing because his late wife – RuthAnn Gillooly — was a former Coral Springs school teacher who had a passion for reading, adored children, and would have loved to see children enjoying the park.
Through conversation, the girls learned the gentleman’s name was John Gillooly — RuthAnn’s husband.
Inspired by his kindness, the troop, who had already been brainstorming ideas for their next project, decided to install a Little Free Library at the park in honor of RuthAnn next to her memorial tree. Little Free Libraries are nationally known pop-up library installations where readers are encouraged to ‘Take a Book. Share a Book’ for free.
John was emotional and humbled by the gesture to honor his wife. He shared that he was previously a non-reader before his wife’s passing but had since read more than 100 books in her honor.
Applying for, raising funds for, and installing a Little Free Library can take months — even longer during pandemic times. Not to mention, the girls needed to build the structure by hand. Sadly, during this time, John passed away.
Saddened by his loss, Kelli and the other parents tried to locate other family members- primarily his adult children- hoping to include them in the official unveiling of the Little Free Library.
“Once we completed the project, we tried a few avenues to track down his family after he passed away but were unsuccessful,” Kelli said. “He was very active with the community – including involvement in local CERT and Relay for Life groups, but no one had direct contact with his family.”
Still, the troop forged ahead with the project. On Saturday, March 4, 2023, with all the logistics finally in place — and the Little Library appropriately renamed to honor RuthAnn and John Gillooly — the girls arrived at Orchid Park to officially unveil their project.
Little did they know, another unexpected encounter awaited them.
During the unveiling, they noticed another visitor at the memorial. Upon starting a conversation, they learned that the visitor was who they had been searching for all along, Kathleen Schaffer, the adult daughter of John and RuthAnn. Kathleen and her husband happened to be visiting from their northern home in Pennsylvania and, while in town, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Orchid Park.
“When I tell you, chills went up my back.” It was the craziest thing,” Kelli said.
Overwhelmed with emotion by this chance encounter, the troop unveiled the new Little Library to an equally-as-emotional Kathleen, who thanked them for their efforts and shared just how much the Girl Scout Troop had meant to her dad during the last days of his life.
“He talked about them almost every day; he referred to them as “His” Girl Scouts,” Kathleen said. “The minute I saw them, I asked, ‘Are you John Gillooly’s Girl Scouts? We’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
Kathleen explained that the memorial was especially meaningful because it embodied who her parents were — longtime Coral Springs residents who were known for lending a helping hand and deeply embraced a spirit of giving throughout the community.
“The girls were so kind, and that’s what my parents lived by,” Kathleen said. “They would give their right arm and their shirt off their back if someone needed help.”
Today, the Little Free Library, RuthAnn’s memorial tree, and John’s memorial bench at Orchid Park have frequent visitors. Between the Girl Scouts and their leaders making sure books are stocked, friends of the Gillooly family who visit the memorial regularly, Coral Springs Parks and Recreation staff who help to maintain the memorial, and park visitors who may not have known the Gilloolys personally, but undoubtedly feel the love and appreciation for all who knew them — the Gilloolys are the recipients of much-deserved love and attention from the same community that they gave so much to during their lives.
Kathleen and her family intend to visit the library whenever they are in Coral Springs, and, as for the Girl Scouts, Kathleen says, now that they’ve found each other, they’re going to be “best friends forever.”
“My heart is so thankful for the Girl Scouts,” Kathleen said. “As they grow, and when they go their own way, I hope they remember what a difference they can make; you never know who is sitting next to you.”
The City of Coral Springs has six Little Free Libraries located throughout the city; find one close to you online at coralsprings.gov/LFL.
Lindsey Steinberg is a Writer/Media Relations Coordinator for the City of Coral Springs.