These Girl Scouts truly are golden

07/22/2014 4:51 PM

07/24/2014 3:34 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 developed a sensory riding trail to help kids with autism. Or started a library at a transitional facility for the homeless. Or started a financial literacy program.

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

Young took the backpacks to Haiti, where they were delivered to an orphanage. But she wasn’t done yet. 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.

Her eco-friendly project was a combination of charity and empowerment that earned her 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.

Young, who attends Olathe Northwest High School, remembers her first trip to Haiti in 2011 with the Global Orphan Project with the Colonial Presbyterian youth group.

“It was super eye-opening,” she said. “I have always had a servant’s heart, but never before had been faced with that type of poverty.”

The trip, shortly after Haiti’s big earthquake, convinced Young she should do something about the need there. Her project to provide backpacks addressed several other needs along the way.

The blue sterile wrap was an ideal material, she said.

“You can’t rip it, and it’s also waterproof.”

And hospitals end up throwing it away, even if it is used only once to convey sterilized instruments, she said.

“A ton of this is going into landfills.”

Young persuaded Shawnee Mission Medical Center to donate clean blue wrap for backpack material. Then she worked out a backpack design —after first getting a few sewing lessons herself — and arranged sewing sessions for younger Scouts to learn to make about 80 backpacks for an orphanage.

She traveled to Haiti over Thanksgiving break in 2012 to deliver the packs. Once there, she helped set up a sewing center in the orphanage so people could keep on making the backpacks from material that would continue to be delivered there.

“It was an amazing project,” said Gina Garvin, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri.

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, Garvin said.

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

And 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.

Young said the experience was rewarding enough that she’s now decided to study international peace and conflict studies and join the Peace Corps.

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

From that first outing selling 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.

“It was unforgettable for many reasons,” said Catherine Pestinger of her project to bring captioning for the hearing impaired to live theater.

Besides the enthusiasm and gratitude of the hard-of-hearing theater-goers, Pestinger said, “I learned how to delegate, how to be confident in my decisions, time management.” She also learned more about the technical issues of providing the captions during live performance.

Pestinger, 17, of Overland Park, was already involved in theater. She said she was inspired to help those with hearing loss because of her grandfather, Phil Pestinger, who had about 50 percent hearing loss.

After doing some research, Pestinger partnered with the Kansas School for the Deaf and the Trilogy Cultural Arts Centre in Olathe, where community theater is often performed. She worked out a system in which a live video feed of the performances is shown on the screens that were already in use for the Indian Creek Community Church services that take place in the same location.

Putting in captions meant Pestinger had to manually type in the script.

“It was definitely a crazy time,” she said.

Her new system premiered with Pestinger starring in the role of Peter Pan.

Sadly, her grandfather didn’t get to see it. He died shortly after she was told she won the part.

“But a seat was still saved for him at the performances,” she said. “He watched from somewhere else.”

Pestinger gets satisfaction from knowing that other hard-of-hearing people may now get more enjoyment out of the theater with the captions, which continue to be offered at some performances.

Emotional satisfaction is also there for Hannah Bettis, for her rewards center at reStart, Inc., and Marin Rodgers for her book walk at Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead.

Bettis, of Overland Park, will turn 17 on Saturday. She used her Gold Award project to redo two rooms at reStart, a transitional facility for the homeless, into rewards centers that promote financial literacy.

Bettis said she’d been serving meals at reStart since middle school along with other members of her church and wanted to do more for the people at the shelter. So she worked with Alissa Parker, manager of volunteer resources for reStart, to fix up a rewards system in which residents could get incentive points for such things as A’s on report cards to spend on donated items.

That meant printing up store “money” on her computer, working with her church, Heritage United Methodist, for donations and labeling and pricing the items. She had a volunteer from a bank come to the center before the store opened to teach a financial class. And, of course, she had to fix up the rooms.

Bettis’s “Imagine” store is open a couple of times a month and it’s been a hit, said Parker.

“They love it,” she said. “They’re always asking, when’s the store opening?”

Actually reStart was the beneficiary of two Gold Award projects this year. Erica Guzman of Parkville redid another room there to open a library.

Parker said she liked that both projects were empowering and helpful to clients.

“They did an amazing thing,” she said. “They created two brand new programs that were volunteer-executed and volunteer-run.”

“The biggest part for me was getting to see the faces of the little kids and how cool they thought it was to go and buy stuff for themselves,” Bettis said.

Katlyn Lukenbill of Belton also had children in mind when she came up with her “Kids + Horses = Gold” project for special-needs kids at a therapeutic riding facility in Harrisonville.

“I have two passions: Kids and horses,” Lukenbill said.

While looking for a project, she stumbled upon the website of Sugar Creek Equinapy, 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 do something 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 sensory input 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 the 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.”

Likewise, Marin Rodgers, 18, of Leawood, enjoys watching kids interact with her project as she strolls around the Kiwanis Club Repose Garden at Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead.

Rodgers, an avid reader and volunteer at the farmstead and at Banneker Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., directed her project toward kindergartners and preschool-aged children.

She spent more than 92 hours designing and building six podiums for the garden, topped with wooden boxes that parents can open. Inside each box are some laminated pages from children’s stories secured on a binder. The stories relate to the natural world of farms, butterflies and insects, so that kids can get a little extra from their nature walk, she said.

“It did take a lot of work,” she said, of the hours spent designing, measuring and building the story boxes.

Still, she said, “it was fun to see people with families open the books and read them and if the kids got stuck on a word, sound it out.

“The whole theme was just to get kids excited and to get them encouraged about reading.”

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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