These Girl Scouts truly are golden

07/22/2014 5:00 PM

07/22/2014 5:00 PM

Say you went above and beyond with volunteer work in your high school years. Maybe you waterproofed and translated books or sewed backpacks and then personally delivered them to recipients in Haiti, where you also read to them or taught them to sew. Or perhaps you started a library at a transitional facility for the homeless, got duffel bags for foster children or developed a sensory riding trail to help kids with autism.

What would your recognition be? Presidential Volunteer Service Award? A congressional medal? The Nobel Peace Prize?

Guess again. The above projects all received the Girl Scout Gold Award — one of the most impressive honors you may never have heard of.

Unless, of course, you are one of the 62 girls in northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri who lived with your Gold Award project for months of worry and work before it finally came to fruition.

Take Erica Guzman’s library project.

Guzman, soon to be a senior at Park Hill South High School, started in February 2013 with the idea of fixing up space at reStart Inc. in Kansas City for a library and outfitting it with books.

“I’m an avid reader and have been since I was younger,” said Guzman, 18, of Parkville. But she was concerned that some shelters did not have libraries at hand for the children. So she set about helping reStart start a library.

At the time, the shelter had a small cart with about 50 books but the potential for so much more. There was an underused room and a collection of more than 2,000 donated books that no one had time to sort.

Guzman, helped by her dad, painted the room with cheery light blue waves and sea creatures, to start. But the hard part was sorting the books. For that, she enlisted one of her grade school teachers. The pair spent a couple of Saturdays — five or six hours at a time — repairing, labeling and color-coding the books that were still in good enough shape to use.

But she wasn’t done yet. She also designed a checkout system and raised money for school supplies, a cork board for kids to put up their artwork and bean bag chairs.

The project was finished in July of last year.

The library was well-timed, said Alissa Parker, manager of volunteer resources at reStart. It has provided a good atmosphere for students from two local universities to read to the children as part of the literacy program by Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“She did an awesome job,” Parker said. “It’s been great for residents and the kiddos.”

The Gold Award is 98 years old this year, and is typically earned by 40 or 50 girls in the Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri, which includes 47 counties in the Kansas City, Topeka and St. Joseph areas.

But while people may be familiar with the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout designation, they may not know as much about the Gold Award, said Gina Garvin, area Girl Scouts spokeswoman.

That’s frustrating to Girl Scout officials, who say the Gold Award is harder to earn.

There’s a minimum 80-hour work requirement. The project has to pass muster with a review committee before that even gets started. The Scout works with an adult adviser along the way. When it’s all finished, the project has to be sustainable, meaning that it will leave some lasting way for the good to continue even after the young woman who started it goes off to college.

Yet, Garvin said, “people don’t really know as much about the Gold Award.”

Part of that may have to do with the award’s history of name changes, she said. It started in 1916 as the Golden Eaglet, became the Curved Bar in 1940 and the First Class Award in 1963 before Girl Scout organizers finally settled on the Gold Award in 1980.

But another reason may have to do with the changing roles of women, who in the past may not have focused as hard as Eagle Scouts on the boost that the award can give to a resume, she said.

“Eagle Scouts do a great job of providing the names to potential employers. We either haven’t done that or women’s names have changed,” Garvin said.

Now, however, the organization makes sure the honoree has a detailed description of all her work in her portfolio so she can take full advantage of scholarships and other rewards, she said.

“They are just as hard-working and just as great a leader as an Eagle Scout.”

Before they even get to the project-review stage, young Scouts need to complete some prerequisites in the lower levels, such as Silver Award or Ambassador projects.

Doing all that hard work will be worthwhile after high school, Garvin said. The projects set young women apart from their peers when it comes to scholarships. In fact, there’s an Alcoa Foundation scholarship of $10,000 for selected girls who do their Gold Award project in science, technology, engineering or math.

A Gold Award on the resume can even get a young woman admitted to a higher rank if she enters the military, Garvin said.

“The Gold Award is definitely the reason why some stay in Girl Scouts,” she said.

Only about 5 percent of Girl Scouts earn the award, but when they do, it changes them.

From that first outing to sell the idea to the review committee to the recruitment of helpers and fundraising, the projects are an exercise in being assertive enough to ask for what is needed.

“I was never a leader, more of a follower,” Guzman said. “But I definitely had to become a leader.”

Likewise Hayley Werth of Parkville, who went on a fundraising campaign to provide foster children with duffel bags to carry their things in when moving.

Werth’s project involved a survey, grant-writing and eventually, distribution of 300 bags.

“I used to be more soft-spoken. Communication was difficult for me,” said Werth, 17. “But there are things out there you don’t even realize are problems. It strengthened my resolve to try to be an influence on kids.”

Werth stumbled upon her project while cleaning out her closet.

When she ran across an old drawstring bag she’d sewn in middle school, her mother, a social worker, said it might be useful to a foster child. Foster children typically don’t have luggage, and have to carry their belongings in trash bags, Werth’s mother told her.

“When you think about it, that is a degrading way to travel,” Werth said.

So she typed up a survey given to foster children, asking them what how that made them feel.

“They said that made them feel like they were worthless, that they were trash themselves,” she said.

So with the help of her mother, Stefanie Werth, Hayley wrote a grant proposal, which was turned down. Despite the setback, she eventually found a grant and ended up with $3,000 to buy the bags. They were distributed with the help of KVC Behavioral Healthcare.

For Raven New of Gladstone, the skill set was a little different. New, 18, learned what a tough room kids in upper elementary school can be when she tried to talk to them about healthy eating habits.

“It definitely taught me some leadership skills because at some point, the kids wouldn’t listen to me,” she said. “You need different organizational skills with kids than adults because they’re jittery all the time.”

New was inspired by first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. After doing some of her own research on childhood obesity and its effects on ethnic groups, New set out to work with third- through fifth-graders at Chapel Hill Elementary School in Gladstone.

She taught lessons in nutrition and portion size, led games and exercises and provided healthy recipes for the kids to try.

“They loved the cooking portion,” she said.

Students learned how to make vegetable pizzas, fruit smoothies and salads. But all that food for cooking had to be paid for. So part of her project also involved getting donations from local food stores.

But it was fun, she said.

“I am an athletic person, so there was some fun in what I was doing. It wasn’t just work.”

The projects can be life changers. Katlyn Lukenbill of Belton may never forget the things she learned about autism when she set up a sensory riding trail for them at Sugar Creek Equinary, a therapeutic riding center in Harrisonville.

Lukenbill set up a series of activities that would help riders identify and relate to such things as certain smells, colors and traffic signals. Along the way, she learned how to communicate with children who have special needs, she said.

But the project gave the 19-year-old her own boost.

“I can now, if I set my mind on something, see it through and follow it to the end,” said Lukenbill.

And then some projects just stand out for their scope.

In 2012, Paige Young, 17, of Overland Park embarked on a huge project to get backpacks to children in Haiti. She got a donation of blue sterile wrap — used to wrap surgical instruments and then typically thrown away — from a local hospital. Then she got someone to teach her how to sew and design backpacks, so that she could teach younger Scouts who would help her create around 80 backpacks.

Young took the backpacks to Haiti, where they were delivered to an orphanage. But she wasn’t done. The next day, she helped set up a sewing center and taught workers there how to make the backpacks so the project could continue as more sterile wrap was delivered.

“I always wanted to do service as a living,” said Young, who attends Olathe Northwest High School. But the Gold Award project has convinced her she should join the Peace Corps.

“This is what I want my life to be,” she said.

Her Gold Award project received national recognition this year when the Girl Scouts designated her one of 10 “Young Women of Distinction.” Young was selected from among 200 applicants for the honor, which is the highest in Girl Scouting.

That more people recognize the Eagle Scout than Gold Award “bothers me a lot,” said Young, whose brother completed his Eagle Scout requirements. “Some of these are huge projects and nobody hears about them.”

But in any case, Young said she’s thrilled to be one of the elite group of honorees who will be celebrated at a ceremony in Salt Lake City in October.

A catalog

of service

For more information about other Gold Award projects in the area, go to: www.girlscoutsksmo.org and click on “About us” and then “News.”

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