Ask 15-year-old Lea Schultz what she likes about being in Girl Scout Troop 200 and she'll tell you, "All of it."
That seems to be a shared sentiment among the dozen members of the Naperville-based special-needs troop that finished its first season last week with an end-of-the year celebration and awards ceremony.
Each girl made a poster telling her favorite things about Girl Scouts. Eight-year-old Maddie Newman of Aurora, one of three members who "bridged" up from a Brownie to a Girl Scout that evening, listed several.
"1. I like sitting next to Savana (her friend)," she said.
"2. I like my Girl Scout friends.
"3. I like the merit badges. I like to meet at the big white building."
Emma Riehs, 8, of Naperville was brief, but honest.
"I like the snacks," said Emma, whose mom, Cathy, spearheaded the group and serves as co-leader with Megan Hollingsworth, staff member with the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association.
Riehs said it's been an exhausting but exciting year of field trips, parties, service projects, badges and cookie sales.
"It's taken a life all of its own because the parents and girls are so involved," she said. "I'm very proud. I think they're having fun. I'm having fun."
Riehs said she approached WDSRA about starting the troop after she had spent the previous year driving Emma an hour each way to another special-needs Girl Scout troop that was less active.
When WDSRA put out an e-mail asking its staff members if they were interested in partnering with Riehs, Hollingsworth jumped at the chance. She had been a Girl Scout throughout 12 years of school, and in college joined the Campus Scouts to mentor other troops.
Now Hollingsworth is seeing the girls, ranging in age from 8 to 15 and with disabilities that include autism and Down syndrome, sharing in the joys she knew in Scouts. You can see it when they work on a craft or a project, Hollingsworth said.
"You just kind of get that smile from them, like I did it," she said. "It's just so cool to see them being proud of themselves.
A group of their own
Troop 200 filled an unmet need.
WDSRA had a special-needs Girl Scout troop in the 1980s and '90s that still holds annual reunions, but no current troop had existed for several years, said Sherry Manschot, WDSRA's marketing and public relations manager. The Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association also had a troop that was discontinued this past year due to low attendance.
That leaves Girl Scout Troop 200 as the only special-needs troop in the DuPage County area, Manschot said. But not for long. Troop 200 has been so successful that WDSRA plans to start a second troop in Carol Stream in the fall.
"The girls in this troop, supported by an incredible network of people at WDSRA, illustrate how the basics behind the Girl Scout program are important for all girls' development. Girl Scouting helps girls discover, connect and take action to make the world a better place," said Julie Somogyi, director of integrated marketing and communication for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.
But whether to seek the Girl Scout experience in a regular troop or a special-needs group is a question for some parents.
"I'm glad we went this route," said Julie Newman, Maddie's mother. "There are some common experiences. I think it's a group where the girls can relax and be themselves."
Deb Christopher of Plainfield said her daughter, Kelly, 13, had been in a regular Scout troop since kindergarten, but as the other girls grew older they became more involved in planning activities that were lost on her daughter, who has Down syndrome.
"It gets back to doing more hands-on activities," she said. "She's had a great time. She especially enjoyed the parties and trips."
Trips included a fall hike and visit to Drury Lane to see "Seussical." The girls made valentines and door decorations for the senior residents of Meadowbrook Manor in Naperville, collected baby food for Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry, and purchased birthday gifts to donate to the Humanitarian Service Project in Carol Stream.
Sashes full of badges
Lea cited shopping for birthday gifts and the Valentine's party as two of the highlights of her year. The oldest member of the troop at 15, she also was put in charge of receiving the postcards the troop received from Girl Scout troops from other places. She gave a presentation on the postcard program.
"The postcard that came from the farthest away was Japan," she said.
Her mom, Patty Schultz of Plainfield, said learning to speak before a group has been one of benefits of the Girl Scout experience for Lea.
"She's really come a long way," she said. "It's forcing her to be a role model."
Maddie Newman gave a brief presentation on the history of the Girl Scouts and received an award for perfect attendance. Julie Newman said her daughter made new friends, as well as earning 13 badges.
"For her, it's a point of pride that she has a sash full of badges, and she knows what each one is," she said.
Along with Maddie, Savana Sains and Alex Leo bridged up to become full-fledged Girl Scouts. Alex's mom, Amy Leo of Lombard, said the troop has helped foster her 9-year-old daughter's independence.
"She doesn't even let me stay. She has so much fun," Leo said. "She comes running out and showing everything she's done."
The troop meets during the school year from 6:30 to 8 p.m. every other Tuesday at Sportsman's Lodge in Naperville. This summer, some of the girls will attend day camp at the Girl Scouts' Camp Greene Wood in Woodridge. The troop will have a family cookout in August and activities will start again in September. No doubt the girls will be ready.
"I've learned you have to be a sister to every Girl Scout," Maddie said.
For more information on Girl Scout Troop 200 or the new troop to start in Carol Stream, call WDSRA at (630) 681-0962.
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