Learn how Central Texas Girl Scouts are going for Gold Award 100 years later

The Girl Scout cookies are here. The sale, which begins Wednesday, will have girls around Central Texas standing at booths outside local businesses starting Saturday. You’ll see the girls. You probably cannot avoid them. Be nice.

While the almost six weeks of cookie sales is the time when Girl Scouts are the most visible, Girl Scouts do a lot more all year long.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Gold Award, Girl Scouts’ highest honor. It’s a tough one to achieve. Only about 6 percent of all Girl Scouts in the Central Texas council earn this award — or about 35 to 60 girls a year.

The award began as the Gold Eaglet in 1916, became the Curved Bar Award in 1940, then the First Class Award in 1963 and the Gold Award in 1980.

It requires a girl to be a high-schooler who has either completed her Silver Award as a middle-schooler and done one journey badge (a community service/education badge) or done two journey badges. She has to identify a need in her community and create a project that serves that need. The project also has to be sustainable — something that can continue to make a difference in the community long after the Gold is earned. She has to put in 80 hours of her own time on the project as well as share the project throughout the community.

People want to try to compare the Gold Award to Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout Award. They are different in that the Eagle Scout requires 21 badges earned, plus a project; the Gold Award just requires a journey and Silver Award or two journeys, but the project is more involved.

Sharon Kemp, who serves on the Gold Award committee for Girl Scouts of Central Texas and has led high-schoolers in her own troop through the process, says it’s not enough to want to build a picnic table for a nonprofit organization. A girl going for her Gold Award would have to also develop educational curriculum that would put that picnic table to use and continue to be used for years to come.

“They find something that they are really excited about,” says Laura Waldo, a member of the committee. While she loves to see projects that have to do with nature, “some of the other things these girls are doing are just unbelievable to me.”

One of the biggest tips Kemp gives to girls interested is to start early. “Don’t wait until senior year or junior year, ” she warns. “They have so much stuff going on in high school. If they can start earlier, it’s a lot easier.”

It might take a girl a while to find that perfect project that is sustainable and a community partner that wants work with her.

The paperwork can be daunting because girls aren’t used to having the level of details in the plan that is required for the proposal to pass the committee. Often they have to go back and refine the proposal with more details and more definitive plans for sustainability and sharing it with the community to get it approved.

The Gold Award is something colleges look at and even future employers. Some scholarships also are tied to the award or it might help a girl get more attention from scholarship committees. If a girl with a Gold Award joins the military, she automatically enters one rank higher than someone without a Gold Award.

Jaclyn Sharp now works for Girl Scouts of Central Texas. She got her Gold Award in 2005.
Jaclyn Sharp now works for Girl Scouts of Central Texas. She got her Gold Award in 2005.

Jaclyn Sharp, 27, who now works for Girl Scouts of Central Texas as a membership development executive, lists her Gold Award on her resume. Employees have mentioned it as have college admissions counselors.

She earned her Gold Award by creating an art program with curriculum for a pregnancy crisis shelter in California, where she grew up. She had tried several projects before she found the right nonprofit partner and the right project. She did this while dancing several times a week in high school.

“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” she says. “I am the person I am today because I was in Girl Scouts.”

Ollie Leppin, a longtime volunteer at Drive a Senior, and Lena Johnson attend the ribbon cutting ceremony for the medical equipment storage system Johnson put into place at the Round Rock center. Credit: Serita Lacasse
Ollie Leppin, a longtime volunteer at Drive a Senior, and Lena Johnson attend the ribbon cutting ceremony for the medical equipment storage system Johnson put into place at the Round Rock center. Credit: Serita Lacasse

Ella Fischer, a Pflugerville High School junior, worked with Drive a Senior in Round Rock to help the nonprofit inventory and bar code every piece of medical equipment the nonprofit loans out. She also built racks to store the equipment in. Because of her award, the nonprofit was able to apply for a grant to get additional equipment.

It took her about a year and a half to complete the project, but the result is something that will help many seniors, including her grandmother, who uses Drive a Senior.

She says she enjoyed every step of her project, even working in a shed in August. She believes it will help in her college applications to distinguish her from other people who have similar grades and test scores.

“A Gold Award recipient speaks words about who you are and what kind of work ethic she you have,” Fischer says.

Lena Johnson worked at Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center teaching kids about leadership. Credit: Anne Roberts
Lena Johnson worked at Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center teaching kids about leadership. Credit: Anne Roberts

Lena Johnson, a senior at Cedar Park High School, taught 10 lessons on leadership skills for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department’s summer youth program at Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center in East Austin. She made sure the lessons matched the department’s formatting so they could use them in future lessons.

Kids ages 7-12 learned about teamwork, public speaking and difference between hearing and listening. At the end of an activity, she got letters from campers thanking her for teaching them. She also could see that her lessons were having an impact. After she taught about teamwork, more kids started reaching out to the kids with learning or physical disabilities in their group. Before the kids separated themselves and the kids with disabilities relied on adults for help.

Johnson worked on this project a year before she was able to start the work. The first two times her project fell through before she could get it approved and she had trouble finding a partner organization.

“The hardest part was not giving up,” she says. “That made it more amazing than I ever thought it could be. I learned about taking failure and not letting it get me down.”

Priya and Kavya Ramamoorthy presented their Gold Award projects at a GenAustin event.
Priya and Kavya Ramamoorthy presented their Gold Award projects at a GenAustin event.

Sisters Kavya and Priya Ramamoorthy, seniors at Westwood High School, both created programs that teach about Title IX. Priya Ramamoorthy created a video and discussion guide to teach middle-schoolers about bullying and gender discrimination. Grisham Middle School implemented it during their advisory period and it’s been given to other schools to use.

“This was something I’m really passionate about,” Priya Ramamoorthy says. They first learned about Title IX as part of a history fair project when they were eighth-graders at Grisham.

Kavya Ramamoorthy focused on Title IX in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math careers. She made a video that gave the history of discrimination and how Title IX helped women going into more STEM careers.

Kavya Ramamoorthy says she grew as a public speaker because she is naturally a shy person. She had to talk to administrators in her school district and teachers to get her video shown.

“Girl Scouts especially allowed me to take this small idea that I had and made me branch out,” she says.

More about Girl Scouts

Meet some cookie super sellers.

What do girls learn from selling cookies?

Learning as much from my Girl scout troop as I have taught them.

Sleeping habits of teens, worse than babies?


Benjamin Villalpando just wants to sleep, but not during normal sleeping hours. That’s a teenager for you. Photo by Nicole Villalpando

We’re waging a war in my house to get my 12-year-old and my almost 15-year-old to go to sleep at night. We haven’t waged such a war since they were babies and toddlers.

We really thought that when they went to their rooms for the night, they were sleeping. Well, they were in bed… but playing on their phones, playing on the computer, reading manga, watching episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “South Park,” potentially looking up porn — doing everything but sleeping.

We, as 40-something parents, were asleep, because we are tired people. We get up early to wake these teens up, get them to school and get us to work, get them from school, remind them to do homework, feed them, do laundry, clean up the garbage dump we call our house, and deal with a crazy 5-month-old puppy who bites more than a zombie.

Last week, after reading Leonard Sax’s new book “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt our Kids when We Treat them Like Grown-Ups” and interviewing him, I was reminded about how important sleep really is for kids.

And I was reminded of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s policy on screen time: 

No more than two hours a day of entertainment screen time for all screens — tablets, smartphones, TVs, computers, gaming systems — and no screen time for children younger than 2. Establish screen-free zones in the house: in kids’ bedrooms and at the dinner table.

I also have read many books about teens and one of the constant themes is teens need more sleep than adults and they don’t want to sleep when normal people sleep.

How much sleep do babies, children and teens really need?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has this handy chart:

Newborns 16–18 hours a day
Preschool-aged children 11–12 hours a day
School-aged children At least 10 hours a day
Teens 9–10 hours a day
Adults (including the elderly) 7–8 hours a day

I just wish there was a service like Tamiko Kelly’s Sleep Well that could help my teens get to sleep like she does for toddlers and babies.

For now, we are removing from their bedrooms all electronics including computers, game players and phones as well as the current books they are reading and checking up on them to make sure that they are asleep by 10 p.m., hoping for 9 p.m.

It’s just like those toddler days when they tried to get out of their beds or we caught them playing with their toys at 2 a.m. Surely, we won’t be still doing this when they are in their 20s, right?

Maya Gonzalez to tell girls to share story at GENAustin’s We Are Girls

Maya Christine Gonzalez writes her stories and illustrates them in children's books.
Maya Christine Gonzalez writes her stories and illustrates them in children’s books.

Maya Christine Gonzalez couldn’t find herself in the stories she read as a child. As a Chicana, “I didn’t see myself reflected in a children’s book,” she says. Her mother was white; her father was Mexican. Half her family spoke English; half spoke Spanish, but she only spoke English.

She remembers drawing a “big, brown Chicana face,” on the back of books. “I needed to see myself in books,” she says.

Even though, authors, teachers and librarians have been talking about the need for more diverse characters in children’s literature for decades, Gonzalez as an author, illustrator, educator and mother of a 2-year-old daughter still sees a gap in what kids are exposed to. Unless a grown-up has taken special care in curating a diverse library of voices, kids are still seeing mostly white faces in their books, she says.

Gonzalez is one of the keynote speakers at Girls Empowerment Network Austin’s We Are Girls Conference on Nov. 14. This year the conference’s theme is “Tell Your Story” and it has expanded to be both the Austin Conference at Austin High and now a Houston conference at the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy on the same day. We Are Girls is for third- through eighth-grade girls and their parents.

Gonzalez, who will be at the Austin conference, talks about identity and finding yourself in the world in her book “My Colors, My World/Mis Colores, Mi Mundo”; about gender identity in the gender neutral “Call Me Tree/Llamame arbol” and about feeling like you belong in the world in “I Know the River Loves Me: Yo sé que el río me ama.”

Gonzalez tries to find her voice in the silence, which is not just about not having your stories told, but also about being afraid to share who you really are, she says.

“I’m talking about that deeper silence,” she says. “We don’t really know how to tell our truths. We feel there are things we can and cannot tell ourselves.”

"My Colors, My World" from Maya Christine Gonzalez.
“My Colors, My World” from Maya Christine Gonzalez.

“I was a child who gathered silence,” she says. “… Kids are gathering their stories and their silences right now.”

Stories, she says, are all around us as well as inside us. She looks to nature to make sense of the world, and she quiets herself to listen to all the stories already inside her that are just waiting to be told.

At the conference, she’ll talk to girls about using art and storytelling to find themselves and how to find their own stories and truths.

“We have to meet ourselves in a world that doesn’t often see us,” she says.

We Are Girls Conference

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 14

Where: Austin High School, 1715 W. Cesar Chavez St.

Tickets: $30

Information: genaustin.org

Being a Girl Scout leader … why I do what I do

Sara hops crosses over a bridge and becomes a cadette.
Sara hops crosses over a bridge and becomes a cadette as I give her an award.

Last night, I helped three of the girls in my daughter’s Girl Scout troop bridge from junior to cadette. It’s really the start of their move from fifth grade to sixth grade and the responsibility that comes with achieving this new level of Girl Scouting. Two of the girls, Sara and my daughter Ava, have been in the troop since it started when they were kindergartners.

The thing about being a leader is that I get to be a part of these girls’ lives and watch them grow up and mature. I remember our first meeting when I thought there was something wrong with Sara. She didn’t talk — at all. She wouldn’t even make eye contact. Now she’s one of the top cookie sellers in our troop. She can teach other girls how to put up a tent, and she’ll tell me quietly and calmly when things are off track, and perhaps, we need to rethink our plan.

I’ve also watched the sixth graders become middle-schoolers. And while I know they are giving their mothers grief, they aren’t that way with me. Sure, they might sass me, but I’m an adult whom they know cares about them and doesn’t judge them when they do something completely ridiculous.

At the end of the year ceremony each year, I give each girl an award. Sometimes they are silly — like this year, I gave an award for best fandom for a girl who uses the phrase “Ariana Grande” at least 10 times during a meeting. Sometimes, they are more meaningful, like best mentor, to a girl who became a cookie captain, or most mature, to a girl who really stepped up and lead this year.

Each year, they stand up there and roll their eyes as I give them their award. And each year, we all giggle about something they did this year that was funny or unbelievable. But at least, they know they have one adult who is really noticing them; who really sees them. They don’t have to tell me exactly what’s going on, but I know. And they know that I know.

And that’s why, even when it is 30 degrees and sleeting and I’m standing out there with them selling cookies or when the back seats of my van have reached rock-concert-decibel levels, I know it’s all worth it.

The WayForward for young adults with autism, intellectual challenges

Susan Nelms, the executive director of WayFoward
Susan Nelms, the executive director of WayFoward.

WayForward is a new nonprofit headed by Susan Nelms that seeks to be the bridge between school and the real world for young adults with autism or other intellectual or developmental disabilities.

It seeks to help adults beyond age 22 with vocational skills training and coaching as well as encourage employers to hire people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Upon exiting the school system, young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have few options to guide them on a path to an occupation” said Susan Nelms, executive director of WayForward in a press release.  “We are launching a program for individuals with disabilities in pursuit of career training and individualized services to assist them so they can gain employment and achieve more independence.

WayForward’s first fundraising event is 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Austonian. Tickets are $150.

For more information on the event, go to www.wayfwd.org.

Coincidently, I’m currently working on a story about a Seton program called SEARCH, which helps young adults learn job skills with an internship in its hospitals. Look for that story on May 2 in austin360.com/raisingaustin.

Toddlers are a-holes… yes, they are, but so are teens

toddlersareaholesA new book came across my desk: “Toddlers are A**holes; It’s Not Your Fault,” by Bunmi Laditan. It had me cracking up even though I’m about nine years removed from living with a toddler. And then I thought, I could easily exchange the word toddlers for teenagers.

Some fun from the book: How do you know you have a toddler? All four food groups can be found between your couch cushions. You’ve had to say “Stop eating out of the trash” in the last twenty-four hours. You sometimes wish you had a time machine and a condom.

And some positive affirmations: I will take revenge when this child is older, One day this kid will have to change my diapers, At least I don’t have triplets.

The book is $10.95 from Workman Publishing.


Clothing line for kids with autism, sensory differences

Independence Day Clothing features rugby-style shirts and cargo-style pants that can be worn inside out and backwards without worries.
Independence Day Clothing features rugby-style shirts and cargo-style pants that can be worn inside out and backwards without worries.

Lauren Thierry never thought she’d be dressing her son Liam into his teen years. Liam, who is now 17, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. Getting dressed requires fine motor skills to snap, zip and button things and follow a process from one step to the next. Liam would spend half an hour getting dressed every morning and still pants and shirts would be backwards or inside out.

So Thierry invented clothes that couldn’t be worn backward or inside out because any way you put them on would be correct. They also don’t have any zippers, buttons or snaps. The fabrics have four-way stretch and snap back into place so it won’t matter if one time that area covers the rear and the next time it covers the front. Carefully planned stitching means that the seams are hidden to avoid an obvious outside versus inside. Fabrics also were chosen to appeal to kids who have sensory sensitivities.

Her Independence Day Clothing launched last year and now includes 14 items, from tunics and skirted leggings for girls to collarless rugby shirts and cargo pants for boys. Some of the items have space for a GPS tracker.

Independence Day Clothing features shirts and tunics for girls as well as skirted leggings and dresses.
Independence Day Clothing features shirts and tunics for girls as well as skirted leggings and dresses.

There are more items planned, including skirts, underwear and bras, and more sizes planned, including smaller children’s sizes and double extra-large.

Thierry doesn’t just see this as a line for people with autism. Anyone who has difficulty getting dressed or sensory sensitivities would benefit, she says. Her two typical kids also wear them because they are so easy. “We want everyone to like us,” Thierry says. “We want to be the answer to every mom’s dreams.”

Prices range from $85 for a dress to $34 for a tunic. You can find them online at independencedayclothing.com.

Monitor kids’ cellphones, don’t rely on trust, cyber security expert says

Bob Lotter is the creator of My Mobile Watchdog.
Bob Lotter is the creator of My Mobile Watchdog.

We’ve heard from a lot of different experts about how to teach kids to appropriately use social media and avoid cyber bullying and sexting.

Many have told us to be parents and take the phone away or pointed out that kids younger than 13 aren’t legally allowed to be on social media sites so they shouldn’t be on them.

The reality is, our kids, even those younger than 13, have cellphones, are using apps, are on social media sites like Instagram and Twitter, and are playing video games that connect them to people they don’t know a world away.

As a parent, it’s hard to keep up with all the

different apps and sites, passwords and privacy settings. And, we also forget, that it’s something as simple as texting that can do the most harm.

Bob Lotter, a national expert on child safety in mobile technology and creator of the My Mobile Watchdog monitoring software, regularly works with law enforcement to catch predators who use technology to lure children. He’s also helped schools navigate what to do when there is a cyber bullying problem.

MMWD Screen Shot 3For him, it’s not enough to educate children about good cyber etiquette, parents also have to monitor what their children are doing.

“They have a lack of maturity to make good decisions,” he says about kids, even after their parents have gone through safety rules.

And parents can’t be expected to know what to do with each application their kids are using. Instead, he encourages parents to add monitoring software to their children’s phones.

“Education alone isn’t putting a dent in this problem,” he says.

Here are some of the things that software should allow parents to do:

Control what applications kids can run.

MMWD Screen Shot 2Set which hours they are allowed to text or receive phone calls.

Monitor texts and phone calls.

Manage contacts to make sure they are from a real person their children know.

Block inappropriate websites.

Monitor photos taken and received.

Shut the camera off.

Set up the phone to only be able to call parents or a specific approved contact at certain hours and do nothing else.

Allow parents to block apps and unblock apps. (Think: grades are down, no Instagram for you; grades are up, you get to Instagram again or you get to Instagram only in a parent’s presence.)

Has anti-hacking measures that don’t allow children to remove the software.

Creates a report that is admissible in court.

My Mobile Watchdog is just one of the apps available to parents, Lotter says. He doesn’t care which app parents use as long as they are using something.

The younger a child is the more parents need to lock down the phone and monitor the way it is being used, he says. The most vulnerable ages for kids to be targets is 13 and 14.

While we’ve focused a lot on cyber bullying in recent years, sexting (sending and sharing naked or suggestive photos) is actually dwarfing cyber bulling, Lotter says. He estimates that 1 out of every 4 or 5 kids has experienced it. We’ve all heard of the ex-boyfriend sharing photos scenario, but there are also schemes in which complete strangers pretend to be someone kids know. At first they are flirty and harmless, until kids give them the image they want. Then they threaten to distribute the photo if they don’t pay up. Kids also have been caught photographing or video taping other kids in locker rooms and bathrooms. They then send those images around school as revenge.

Once the photo is out, “it’s never going to disappear,” he says.

Kids also get in trouble for passing along photos they received and can be charged with distributing child pornography even if they didn’t take the photo. And if a parent show its to another parent or a teacher or principal, they’ve just distributed child pornography. The only groups parents can share it with are law enforcement and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he says. Lotter advises parents to delete it off the phone and then use monitoring software’s database to take the information to the police.

Lotter also recommends parents have their children sign a contract about the appropriate usage of the phone, ideally before giving their children a phone. It will make rules about phone use more black and white and prevent an endless argument about the phone. When the contract is broken, it’s time to take that phone away.

Another tip on parenting teens

wheatfieldOn Saturday I wrote about four books about how teenagers and their brains work. You can read that article here.

Wheatfield Therapy’s Betsy Fredrickson wrote in to suggest another book: “Positive Discipline for Teenagers” by Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott. Fredrickson also teaches a workshop on positive disciple for teenagers. Her upcoming workshop is 7-9 p.m. Wednesdays Jan. 21-March 4 at her office, 4131 Spicewood Springs Road, Suite N-3. The workshop is $295 per person and you can reserve your space at betsy@wheatfieldtherapy.com or 512-914-0006.

The workshop covers how to communicate with teens on everything from school to sex and helps you figure out how to stop fighting over homework, chores, responsibility, daily routines and siblings.