Going for the Gold

T he Gold Award gets no respect. It’s the highest award in Girl Scouting, and it’s more than 100 years old, but high school girls who earn it still find themselves having to explain it over and over again. 

Mary Barneby, CEO of Girl Scouts of Connecticut, has a theory about why that happens. She often encounters people whose attitude is still, “Oh, it’s girls. It’s probably not as important as what the boys do.” She’s referring to boys who earn the Eagle Scout Award from Boy Scouts of America—a separate and unrelated organization that, Barneby admits, has created a stronger brand for its capstone award. Meanwhile, the most widely known aspect of the Girl Scout brand is cookie sales. That leaves the girls with a sweet, young image that’s hard to counteract when girls are older and bolder. “It’s just what I think women encounter sometimes in their careers, that if you are strong and you are good, you’re going to run into people who are intimidated by it,” Barneby says.

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The Gold Award requires Girl Scouts—mostly high school juniors and seniors—to identify a problem in their community, develop a project to address it, bring together the people and resources to accomplish that project, spend at least 80 hours—but often more—executing the project from start to finish and then file a formal report and be interviewed by their Girl Scout council for approval. The impact of the project has to be sustainable, something that will last after the girl moves on. “It’s not just delivering blankets to the local shelter,” Barneby says. “It’s really changing the face of a problem in the community.”

This year, 80 girls in Connecticut earned their Gold Award. That number represents just five percent of the Girl Scouts old enough to undertake the project, which is daunting by design. 2020 awardees created a high school program for parents and caregivers about mental health issues, launched a journalism and filmmaking camp for kids and successfully lobbied for an ordinance banning plastic straws in Stamford. Most projects took place in-state, but some girls went farther afield. One scout collected instruments, music and school supplies for children on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and arranged virtual recorder lessons for them.

“Girl Scouts isn’t just scrapbooking, and it’s not even just going out into the community and… restocking the food pantries,” says Hannah Reifler, a 2020 Hamden High School graduate who just earned her Gold Award. She echoes Barneby’s frustration about negative comparisons with the boys. “There shouldn’t be a divide between what we think the Boy Scouts are into and what we think the Girl Scouts are into,” Reifler says. “Come on, my Girl Scout troop has an annual camping trip, we’ve gone backpacking, we go hiking aside from our camping trip, we like doing outdoor stuff…” This year, her troop also earned a Photography badge, cooked dinner at a women’s shelter and ran a traditional town-wide dance for younger Girl Scouts and their guests. After the pandemic forced their meetings online, they met every Sunday evening and, among other things, brainstormed possible solutions to problems they saw with bulk trash pickup in Hamden.

Reifler found her Gold Award project in New Haven at The Towers, a senior living facility; she had volunteered there before through her synagogue,Temple Beth Sholom. One day, her supervisor mentioned that many of the residents have arthritis and look for activities to keep their hands limber. Reifler saw a few small planters scattered throughout the courtyard and thought of her own raised garden beds at home. She figured she could build some for the residents to use. “I wanted to kind of combine giving the residents something to do with their hands and also [give] them a way to grow their own food and have fun,” Reifler says. “And everyone likes plants. They’re pretty to look at and they make people feel good, and it would get people outside.”

After proposing and discussing the project with the facility’s leadership, Reifler researched materials—balancing durability and cost—and how to design the beds for people using wheelchairs or walkers. She found a carpenter, who also happens to be a Girl Scout leader, to help her finalize the design, choose the correct materials and execute the build.

A few lessons were learned the hard way. The water pressure in the Towers hose didn’t work as well as Reifler had hoped with the irrigation system she set up. And on build day, the second bed ended up wobbling due to imperfectly installed legs. Reifler was supervising a team of eight friends and fellow Girl Scouts. “They were like, ‘Are you kidding me? Do we have to take this out?’” Reifler recalls. She knew the residents needed a perfectly stable bed, so she honed her management skills on the spot, “figuring out a way of explaining it so that they would want to rebuild it.” She succeeded.

Reifler will be starting at the University of Pittsburgh this fall as a bioengineering major with an interest in prosthetics and organ development. In the meantime, she’s been back to The Towers a couple of times to check on the garden beds. They’ve been planted with flowers and herbs, and residents have told her they like how they look in the courtyard. The seniors’ personalities came through, she says, in the way they planted their portion of a bed: precisely or artistically or crammed full. She enjoys seeing the flowers they’ve chosen, even though she and her fellow Girl Scouts don’t want to be thought of as “dainty little flowers” themselves.

“We’re people,” Reifler says, deemphasizing gender. “We’ve got interests. My entire Gold Award project was about building with wood, and saws, and my literally favorite part was using the giant tabletop saw.” She demonstrates the motion of guiding the saw down onto a plank of wood. “Awesome!”

Girl Scouts of Connecticut
20 Washington Ave, North Haven (map)
(800) 922-2770 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features Hannah Reifler.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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