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Nov 20, 2017 12:43 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Butterfly Effect Project Soars With Growing Numbers

Nov 21, 2017 10:42 AM

Tijuana Fulford stands in the corner of the cavernous, bright room in the Riverhead Senior Center, momentarily still and apart from the cheerful chaos. The room is sprinkled with Thanksgiving balloons and crowded with circular tables sporting autumnal tablecloths and turkey-theme word puzzles. A huge Thanksgiving spread dominates the front of the room, laden with turkey and mashed potatoes, stuffing and juice boxes.

And there are little girls everywhere—laughing, dancing, hugging, playing with each other’s hair and sneaking peaks at the Thanksgiving word searches of their neighbors.

Ms. Fulford, founder and executive director of the Butterfly Effect Project, pauses a moment to survey the community she’s built—from eight to 167 girls in only three years—before she’s inevitably pulled back into the joyful current.

She has earned her moment of quiet pride. A 34-year-old Riverhead native now living in Mastic Beach, Ms. Fulford dreamed up the Butterfly Effect Project, a nonprofit that meets every Wednesday to teach young women, affectionately referred to as “butterflies,” empowerment and independence within a supportive community through speakers and service projects, three years ago.

She wanted to pay forward the salvation she found in the mentor who forever changed her life: her longtime friend Justine Wells of Aquebogue, a former Riverhead Town historian who died three years ago.

“When I met Justine Wells, she showed me a different way,” Ms. Fulford recalled on Wednesday, November 15, referring to her hard childhood in a family battling with drug addiction and her own experience taking on adult-sized responsibility at a young age. “I was fortunate to see two different worlds, to learn different values. I saw a model of families that would watch TV together, have a bedtime, had more structure.”

At the hands of Ms. Wells, Ms. Fulford learned empowerment and intellectual curiosity, as well as drive and ambition. These new lessons, coupled with her personal education about how much more difficult life is for those born on the wrong side of systemic inequities, primed her for a future of mentorship and social awareness.

Ideas turned to action after a memorable incident with one of her daughters, Alexandra, now 10. Ms. Fulford was throwing a birthday party for Alexandra, and realized that the young girl had excluded three of her Girl Scout troop members from the invite list. When asked why, Alexandra told her it was because those girls couldn’t afford to go on any trips or buy the Girl Scout patches, so she assumed they wouldn’t be able to afford to come to the birthday party either.

“I realized that I was raising the same kind of kid as the girls who teased me when I was little,” Ms. Fulford remembered thinking.

She pulled Alexandra and her younger daughter, Genesis, now 9, out of Girl Scouts and went to Ms. Wells with her idea to create an alternative club, where participation was free and all girls could find a community of sisterhood and support without financial or cultural barriers. “‘Shut up and do something,’” Ms. Fulford said, recalling the exact words of her mentor.

And she did just that.

Starting with eight girls gathered in the basement of the Riverhead Free Library, Ms. Fulford set out to provide them with positive role models, friendship and learning. The word spread, and their number jumped to 20, then 60 and now 167 girls ranging from as young as four to their early teens. She moved the group into its present home at the Riverhead Senior Center to accommodate the growing numbers.

Membership is free and the activities run off donations. In a typical class, the girls read “butterfly news,” or announcements about the club’s goings on, write thank you letters to any speakers or volunteers they worked with in the past week, and host their new speaker and complete activities with them.

They also listen to “butterfly buzz,” which just happens to be Ms. Fulford’s favorite. “Parents, teachers, anyone who has news sends it to me—it’s snitching, really,” said Ms. Fulford, laughing. “We hold the girls’ feet to the fire. We encourage their successes and acknowledge their failures. We rise and fall together.

“Parents love it,” she added. “It teaches the girls ownership and accountability.”

She puts just as much thought into the speakers she invites to speak to her butterflies. Past guests have included: Melinda Novak, owner and operator of the Long Island Game Farm in Manorville, Dr. Dexter Archer, a veterinarian at the Shirley Veterinary Hospital, and members of the Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

“We want them to have role models out in the community,” Ms. Fulford said. “We don’t want them looking up to Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus. We want them to want to be the next [Southampton Town Supervisor] Jay Schneiderman, the next baker at the Blue Duck, the next bank teller.”

As much as she curates a loving community, she also insists that her butterflies serve their greater communities, too.

“We have ‘give-backs’ four times a year,” she said. “This summer, we walked bag lunches through the Riverhead heat to feed the homebound, drug addicts, anyone we saw.”

That exposure to all parts of society is part of Ms. Fulford’s determination that the girls be accepting of everyone who wants to join their club. “We take in first-time home buyers, people reentering society after prison, anyone who wants to come,” she said. “We empower families and we empower their daughters.”

The butterflies already in Ms. Fulford’s kaleidoscope seem to love her inclusive and supportive approach.

“It lets me express my feelings better than at school or home,” said Cambria Palomino, an 11-year-old from the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic, at last week’s Thanksgiving party. “It’s fun here and I sometimes get bored at school.”

“It’s so nice,” said Jayla Wade, 9, from Flanders. “You treat people how you want to be treated, we go places and help people, we take food to people who don’t have any and we get to dance.”

“My mom wants me to come and make friends,” added Emma Dominguez, 9, who lives in Riverhead and was joined by her 4-year-old sister, Sophia.

In the future, Ms. Fulford wants the Butterfly Effect Program offered in every area school so any girl can choose to be a butterfly. For now, she’ll continue to shape the program in her mentor’s image, a tactic that has been nothing but successful thus far.

“Everything is for her,” Ms. Fulford said, referring to Ms. Wells. “We started in October, because that was her favorite month. We have meetings on Wednesdays because that’s the day I met her. We learn letter writing because she was the town historian. She never let me thank her properly when she was alive, so this is my way to thank her now.”

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Beautiful. Thank you.
By sgt202 (75), Hampton Bays on Nov 20, 17 4:54 PM
1 member liked this comment
What a wonderful idea. Ms Fulford is an angel.
By tenn tom (236), remsenburg on Nov 21, 17 6:54 AM
1 member liked this comment
God less you Ms. Fulford!!
By MelissaA (50), Sag Harbor on Nov 21, 17 10:58 AM
8k run & 3 mile walk, Agawam Park, Southampton Rotary Club fundraiser