Gold Award Girl Scout: Mariam Dhunna, Aurora, “The Pen Pal Program”

What did you do for your Gold Award project?

My Gold Award comprises two parts: the Pen Pal Program and a social skills curriculum. The Pen Pal Program is designed to address social isolation in youth, aged 11 to 19, who have epilepsy. The Pen Pal Program addresses this issue by providing an opportunity for these youth to connect with someone who may share similar experiences or perspectives. Communicating through letter writing, emailing, or texting provides a safe opportunity to develop important social skills, such as the ability to reach out and make a connection with a new person. Learning how to express one’s thoughts and feelings, and reaching out to others for friendship are social skills that are essential to feeling content and confident in life.

The social skills curriculum focuses on learning how to feel confident in establishing a relationship. The primary emphasis is mastering how to greet others, initiating and maintaining a conversation, and negotiating difficult social situations.

How did you measure the impact your Gold Award project made on your target audience?

I measured the impact on my target audience by sending a closing survey to evaluate the positive and negative effects of the program. I also asked for statements from some of the pen pal participants. One of the participants, Amelia, sent me a statement detailing how the Pen Pal Program has impacted her. Through her experience, she has been able to come out of her comfort zone, and make a new friend who understands the difficulties of living with epilepsy. Her pen pal, Bailey, has also expressed that her friendship with Amelia is off to a strong start, as they “have reached out to each other and have each other’s email, phone number, and even Snapchat!”

How is your project sustainable? How will your project continue to impact after your involvement?

The Pen Pal Program and social skills curriculum will be sustained beyond my involvement by the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado’s Youth Council and my foundation liaison, Marcee Aude. One or two Youth Council members will be in charge of continuing the Pen Pal Program and another one to two members will be continuing the social skills curriculum. Marcee Aude will be overseeing it all to ensure it runs smoothly and efficiently. I have obtained a signed letter of commitment from Marcee. In the letter Marcee stated, “This is a Letter of Commitment that the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado and the Youth Council commits to sustain the Pen Pal Program.”

Marcee and the Youth Council have committed to continuing by “sustain[ing], grow[ing] and expand[ing] the program to help so many more youth with epilepsy who may be feeling isolated and struggling with their diagnosis.”

My project will continue to have an impact after my involvement because the social skills curriculum will continue to be taught and new pen pal pairings will be made.

What is your project’s global and/or national connection?

Social isolation in epileptic youth is not an issue unique to youth in Colorado, it is a domestic and international issue. In order to address this, the Pen Pal Program is expanding to recruit pen pals from not only Colorado, but also Wyoming, Illinois, Iowa, the National branch of the Epilepsy Foundation, and New Delhi, India. This will be achieved through my partnership with the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado, the Wyoming Epilepsy Organizations (the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities and the Wyoming Neurologic Associates), the Indian Epilepsy Association (based in New Delhi), and the Epilepsy Foundation of Chicago. Through these partnerships, participants will gain the opportunity to meet people similar to them from different corners of the globe.

What did you learn about yourself?

From this project, I have learned the importance of  maintaining patience and perseverance. I have also learned how to be a stronger leader. Initially, I was not receiving the  number of participants that I had expected, so I collaborated with my team at the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado and brainstormed new ways to raise participation levels. I learned to listen and take feedback from those people who had expertise regarding epilepsy and marketing. It is important to be creative and flexible when planned solutions do not work out, because objectives still need to be achieved. It is essential to be patient and focused on the end goal because it is not guaranteed results will occur as quickly as anticipated, or at all. Through the process of developing this program, I have learned how to lead and collaborate with a diverse group of people. I have worked with Marcee as well as the Epilepsy Foundation Youth Council. The Youth Council is diverse and represents varying ages and cognitive abilities. Some of them have epilepsy; and some of them are like me, and have a connection to epilepsy, such as, through a sibling or parent with epilepsy.

Each  pen pal relationships is different. Because of this, I needed to determine how to  adapt the program to suit each pair’s unique needs. One example of this was when there was a non-epileptic brother, Ty, who was paired with an epileptic youth, Dominic. After being paired, Ty’s mother reached out to me to say that Ty would like to be paired with another non-epileptic youth, as he feels like a caregiver in this role with his epileptic brother at home. Ty and his mother felt that his pen pal partnership with Dominic would be a similar dynamic. I fixed this situation by expanding the pen pal partnership to include Ty’s younger brother, who has epilepsy, Nolan. Ty is assisting Nolan in being a pen pal to Dominic. As the Pen Pal Program expands, Ty will receive another pen pal, who will be a better match.

How will earning your Gold Award impact you in the future?

Earning my Gold Award will impact me in the future because I have developed leadership skills that I will be able to apply to various aspects of my life. From my experiences during the development of my Gold Award, I now know what makes a good leader. A good leader is one who listens to his or her peers, applies the feedback given, and is able to work in a collaborative environment. Good leaders need to be able to recognize that they do not know everything, and that there may be other people who have more knowledge in certain areas. In the future, I will be a better leader because of the skills I have gained from developing this program. Some of the skills I have gained are the ability to “think on my feet,” the importance of collaboration, and the ability to problem solve with a team quickly and efficiently.

Why do you feel the Gold Award was an important part of your Girl Scout experience?

The Gold Award was undoubtedly an important part of my Girl Scout experience. It taught me many valuable skills such as how to lead a diverse group and how to adapt to different situations quickly. Developing my Gold Award also provided me with experiences I would have not had otherwise. I would not have had the opportunity to work with the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado and provide these youth with the ability to create friendships for the future. I feel that through developing my Gold Award, I was able to use all the skills I have developed throughout my years in Girl Scouting.

How did earning your Gold Award help you become a G.I.R.L. (go-getter, innovator, risk-taker, leader)?

Earning my Gold Award helped me become a leader and an innovator. It helped me become a leader because I discovered the traits that make a  good leader as well as how to lead a diverse group of people. Good leaders listen to their peers, apply the feedback given, and work in a collaborative manner. Strong leaders recognize that they do not know everything, and can defer to others with more knowledge and experience when necessary.

Earning my Gold Award helped me to become an innovator because when things did not go as planned, I had to collaborate with my team to quickly devise a solution. I became an innovator because developing The Pen Pal Program was a unique means of addressing social isolation in epileptic youth.

**IMPORTANT NOTE: This blog represents only a small fraction of the hard work, dedication, and requirements that go into earning a Girl Scout Gold Award. It is simply a brief summary, which is meant to inspire Girl Scouts to Go Gold in the future. For more information on earning your Gold Award, please email highestawards@gscolorado.org