How regional Girl Scouts are making an impact on their communities through the Gold Award

Girl Scouts are arguably most known for their cookies. But the 111-year-old organization does more than sell cookies. 

Across the United States, Girl Scouts are participating in programs that teach them how to be engaged community members and take them on adventures. From kindergarten to twelfth grade, girls learn about leadership, personal strengths, financial literacy, environmental stewardship, and more. 

For some, Girl Scouts is a fun, after-school program, full of adventure, socializing, and skill-building activities. But for others, the program means more. Elise Jones, Fort Wayne resident and lifelong Girl Scout, says the program gave her a chance to get to know herself and discover her strengths and interests while trying out a bunch of new things.

“It was really a discovery period,” she says. “In school, you’re learning different topics and learning what your strengths are, but in Scouting, I was able to really get to know myself and the girls around me as we grew into our own personalities and figured out what we wanted to get involved with later in life.”

Now an Economic Development Associate for Greater Fort Wayne, Inc, Jones says Girl Scouts helped her realize her career aspirations as a young adult. 

“Girl Scouts taught me what community is and how you can contribute to it,” she says. “One of the biggest lessons we learn, that I took to heart and have used outside of scouting, is to leave it better than you found it. I apply it to everything I put my energy into.”

For a select few like Jones, years of earning badges, and learning through Girl Scout programs culminate into one final project– the Gold Award. It’s the highest award one can receive as a Girl Scout and less than four percent of all eligible girls earn it. 

Sharon Pohly, Chief Executive Officer, of Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana, says the girls who do earn it are part of an elite group of Girl Scouts.

“These individuals represent an elite group of Girl Scouts who distinguish themselves as the best of the best, as leaders and true change-makers,” says Pohly. “By earning the Gold Award, they have shown they can identify a pressing problem or need in the community, collaborate creatively with others, and take the necessary steps to solve it. They are making a sustainable difference in their communities and providing an impact that makes the world a better place.”

Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana CEO Sharon Pohly (center) is shown with Gold Award Girl Scout honorees Sunday, June 25, at Goshen College. From left are Heather Elwood, Colleen Britten, Keely Roe, and Megan Willis.To be eligible to earn the Gold Award, Girl Scouts must be in high school and have already earned a series of other awards. To earn the award itself, girls must submit a project proposal to their Girl Scout Council, identifying a problem and a solution with a sustainable and measurable impact, complete with research and a team of experts prepared to help. The girls must then put their plan into action and submit a final report for council approval after their work is complete.

Jones completed and earned her Gold Award in 2019. After researching how access to nature can reduce stress, she built, installed, and maintained a large birdhouse at Stillwater Hospice for residents and their families.

This year, seven girls in the Indiana-Michiana region were awarded the Gold Award. Jones, who was the keynote speaker at the ceremony, said this year’s recipients really impressed her.

“The girls blew my mind with their projects,” she says. “It was really inspiring to see. It was great to circle back to my accomplishment and show the girls that I also did this and that it’s paid off for me. It’s such an impressive feat to take on and accomplish.”

Projects addressed issues like access to the arts, mental health, access to food, educational programming about the Potawatomi tribe, health education, and sensory training for emergency personnel.

Keely Roe, an 18-year-old from Warsaw, Ind., who joined Girl Scouts as a kindergartener 13 years ago, was one of the seven scouts who earned the Gold Award this year.

“I stayed with it all the way through elementary school, middle school, and high school,” says Roe. “Girls would come and go. For some, it was just an after-school club to hang out with their friends or go camping. It wasn’t always serious organization for them, but for me it was. I always was a Girl Scout and always will be.”

She says Girl Scouts gave the opportunity to go on adventures, like traveling to London, and earn badges and awards, like the Gold Award. Throughout her tenure as a Scout, Roe says she always knew the Gold Award would be one of her goals. 

“I always told my mom I wanted to go all the way and do all the things, and doing all things means doing the Gold Award,” she says. “Above all, it was my number one goal, whether I did certain badges or awards didn’t matter– I wanted to do the Gold Award.” 

Because scouts are expected to put in a minimum of 80 hours to bring their projects to life, Roe says she was encouraged to pick something she was passionate about. 

“When you pick a topic, it’s supposed to be really personal to you and something that you’re passionate about because this project could go on for several months to a year,” she says.

As Roe began to explore topics, she wasn’t sure what she should do. But then, a health scare gave her a meaningful idea.

At age 16, she found a lump on her breast. The benign tumor was removed around the same time she was beginning to explore topics for her Gold Award.

“It wasn’t life-threatening, but it was scary,” says Roe. “I felt like I was really alienating by having that experience.”
The badge created by Keely Roe, which teaches Girl Scouts about breast health.
As a child, Roe’s mom purchased the American Girl Doll book, “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls,” which is where she learned about healthy habits, including breast health and self-exams.

“I just started doing self-exams,” says Roe. “I just thought it was a good idea, so I started doing them once a month, or every once in a while and it just became a habit. Then, one day I actually found something and I was freaked out. It didn’t feel right, so I told my mom. Having that information early on was helpful.” 

Roe says she felt like no one else her age was experiencing similar medical problems, and then she realized that because Indiana does not require a lot of health education, not all her peers understood self-exams and breast health.

“My peers don’t know anything about it,” she says. “We don’t learn about this in health class, and we don’t know what self-exams are or anything about how our bodies work normally.”

Not only did she find that her peers were unaware of these subjects, but she also found that media can heavily influence what they know about health and their bodies.

“Media makes things seem a lot different,” explains Roe. “Movies and tv can make this all seem disorienting and sometimes, it’s incorrect. It can change our perceptions about our bodies, even though it’s a neutral topic. It’s not supposed to be anything bad or negative, it just is what it is. It’s a health thing. It shouldn’t be weird.”

So how did Roe translate this personal experience into a Gold Award Project?

With the support of a committee, which included health experts, medical doctors, including her own surgeon from Parkview Health, and peers, she created a patch program for older Girl Scouts to learn about breast health awareness, benign conditions, self-exams, and trusted adults. 

“I hosted some virtual workshops with my breast surgeon from Parkview Cancer Institute and we helped Girl Scouts from across the country earn the patch and get the information,” says Roe.

At the end of each workshop, the participating Scouts took a survey, where 100 percent of these girls indicated that they learned what breast exams are from the workshop. 

“It’s an important topic,” says Roe. “Girl Scouts has always been know for blazing the trail and making a change where there needs to be change. This patch program kind of starts that. It blazes the trail for Girl Scouts in the future.”

A brochure made by Keely Roe as part of her Gold Award project.She also created two different brochures about benign conditions and self-exams with the help of Parkview Health and the Kosciusko County Cancer Coalition, which were distributed to area schools and colleges. 

While her own experience was scary, Roe says working on her Gold Award Project has given her a chance to reflect on what she went through, and how she can use it to help others.

A brochure made by Keely Roe as part of her Gold Award project.“It’s taboo,” says Roe. “It’s not supposed to happen. It was hard to tell girls my age about this stuff. It was hard to talk about it in a candid way. It’s embarrassing and that’s what makes it even worse. I felt bad about it but what about someone else? How can I help them know about it and not feel bad about it? Doing this project helped me reflect on my feelings toward it and I helped redirect those negative feelings into a project that helps others.”

She says this project, and working closely with her surgeon, have solidified her career choice. She'll be studying premed at Butler University this fall.
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Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.