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 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 the northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri area who lived with your Gold Award project for months of worry and work before it finally came to fruition.
Take Katlyn Lukenbill of Belton and her “Kids + Horses = Gold” project for special-needs kids at a therapeutic riding facility in Cass County.
“I have two passions: Kids and horses,” Lukenbill said.
While looking for a project, she stumbled upon the website of Sugar Creek Equinapy in Harrisonville, a business that provides riding therapy for people with physical and mental disabilities. Lukenbill saw that the facility had a fire in 2011 and knew she wanted to help.
She contacted Amy O’Neal, assistant director of the facility, and they arrived at a plan. Lukenbill would devise a sensory trail — a riding experience in which the clients could work out their issues with stimuli while having the fun of being on a horse.
About 70 percent of the people served at Sugar Creek Equinapy have some form of autism, O’Neal said. Often, that involves problems processing sights, sounds and smells to the point that kids can be overwhelmed in public school settings, she said.
But they enjoy the empowerment of riding, O’Neal said. So, after a lot of research and with O’Neal’s guidance, Lukenbill came up with portable activity stations that featured shapes, colors and even smells.
“When she came back with the completed project I was just floored,” O’Neal said. Lukenbill’s car was filled with materials for activity after activity.
In one activity, highway cones were wrapped in colorful vinyl that could be put in a sequence according to instruction pages stuck to them. Another had horseshoes wrapped in colored duct tape that could be sorted into buckets with matching colors. In another, riders could put the steps and materials for grooming a horse into sequence. She even made a tiny play house to store scent bottles for the smell activity.
“I’m trying to get them used to everyday things so they can go home and tell their parents what they learned and have a good time,” Lukenbill said.
Sensory input can be difficult for kids with autism, O’Neal said, but Lukenbill’s activities work because they come in the form of a game.
“It’s been wonderful. They’ve enjoyed everything she’s brought out.”
The Gold Award is 98 years old this year, and is typically earned annually 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.
For Lukenbill, that meant the determination to follow through. Her project was started her sophomore year and took more than a year to finish. But it was worth it, she said.
“I can now, if I set my mind on something, see it through and follow it to the end.”
Likewise Caroline Rock of Kansas City, who started a preschool library of waterproofed books for Haitian children.
“At the beginning I didn’t think I could do it at all,” said Rock, 15.
But once she committed to the project, there was no backing out. Now, she says she’s better at communicating with adults.
“I’ve definitely grown as a leader. I’m better at pushing things forward,” she said of the experience.
Rock was inspired by her church’s partnership with a church school in Haiti and her own love of reading to start an ambitious project to waterproof and translate books for school children there.
From hearing stories of her father’s church trips to Haiti, Rock learned about the special problems Haitians face in keeping a library going. Because of the extreme heat, windows and doors at a church and school in Maniche were often kept open for the breeze, she said.
“But it rains there every single day. Water gets on the books,” she said.
Rock wanted a project that would prolong the life of those books and encourage reading. So the Barstow School sophomore struck a deal with the Academie LaFayette Barstow Upper School French class and Girl Scout Troop 1817.
First came the book drive, in which Rock collected 30 preschool-appropriate books. Then she took those books to the class for translation into French, one of the languages of Haiti.
She then put the French words under the English text of each book, so the young students could compare the two languages. Clear contact paper was used to waterproof each page.
The whole thing took way more than the 80 required hours, she said. But it was gratifying to see the kids get so excited over the books that they chose reading over soccer during their recess.
“It made me feel like it was a success,” she said.
For Caitlin Gray of Lee’s Summit, the Gold Award inspiration was the World Cup soccer tournament and her grandparents’ collection of historic flags.
Gray, a longtime soccer fan, said she always enjoys looking at the flags of different countries represented in the World Cup. The 16-year-old has always been interested in flags. That’s because she’s enjoyed looking at and reading the stories behind the historic flags owned by her grandparents, Kay and Jerry Gray of Lee’s Summit.
So she decided to put a flag education program into action that would not only teach the origins of flags at schools and clubs but also help people care for their own aging Stars and Stripes.
Along with the classes for elementary students, Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops and retirees, Gray devised drop boxes for people who wanted to repair or retire their flags and advertised it as a free service in the Lee’s Summit newspaper.
After her grandmother gave her some sewing instruction, Gray set about repairing the flags that weren’t too far gone. She repaired 26 flags, but some were so faded or tattered that they couldn’t be fixed. Those 58 were retired by burning in a solemn ceremony with a Boy Scout troop, she said.
The experience has taught her to use resources wisely, she said. And it was fun and rewarding to repair the flags and teach people about flag history, she said.
“If I had a chance in the future I would definitely do it again.”
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 is 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 the 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.
For more information about other Gold Award projects in the area, go to: www.girlscoutsksmo.org and click on “About us” and then “News.”