Gold Award Girl Scout: Emma Downing, Colorado Springs, “Toys for TESSA: Re-doing the Children’s Play space inside the TESSA Safehouse”

What did you do for your Gold Award project?

For my project, I completely remodeled the children’s space inside of the TESSA safehouse, as well as provided inventory boxes for the residents which can be used to store and catalog their personal belongings.

I chose this project because, after my initial meeting with A TESSA administrator,  I could see that TESSA, despite all of their amazing work, occasionally struggles to create a welcoming space for families staying in their safe house, and especially with creating a space dedicated solely to kids, but still easily managed by parents and safe-house staff. I could see that children needed a space where they could just be kids, to allow them to build positive relationships among themselves and with other children, and to escape some of the trauma they have undoubtedly experienced.

Similarly, I could see a clear need for a dedicated personal space for the safehouse residents to store their belongings. I felt that the inventory box portion of the project would give residents a sense of belonging for the duration of their stay, and help give some sense of order and perhaps even mitigate anxieties they may have after experiencing  an amazingly traumatic situation, I felt my project for the safehouse had the potential to have an immense and far reaching impact on many lives; which Is ultimately why I chose this as my project.

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

The most profound example of the impact of my project that I saw was the direct feedback from the families in the safehouse, and the impact redoing the space  had on their lives. One Saturday, when my mom and I were stocking the space with toys, several women came up to us. A couple asked if we flipped houses for a living, one young mother came up to us – nearly in tears – thanking us for what we were doing for the house, and many others remarked how wonderful it was as they walked by. Unparalleled to their reactions, however, were the reactions of the children. We hardly took the first box of toys off of our cart before the kids had opened it and began looking in wonder at all of the new toys. Kids of all ages began playing with one another and were just unimaginably excited. Someone even remarked that it was like Christmas and their birthday all in one.

The following week, when I delivered the inventory boxes to TESSA, I did not have the time to personally visit the safehouse and my play space, but the staff members I spoke to were moved almost to the point of tears. They kept reiterating how amazing I was, and how much I had done to change things for the better. One staff member told me that I had “completely changed the atmosphere of the entire house” and the adults and children were coming together to play, make art, and keep the space clean and organized in ways that were unprecedented before. And to me, this positive impact on those inside the Safehouse is the most meaningful thing my Gold award accomplished.

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

After my involvement, my project will be sustained in several ways. The play space will be cleaned and maintained by safehouse residents and staff, and the space will be restocked with toys from the donations TESSA regularly receives as needed. As for the inventory box portion, I have created an information letter written in both English and Spanish, as well as an inventory sheet, which can be easily copied after the originals (which I bound together like a legal pad) run out. Similarly, I have received promises from the TESSA safehouse staff to offer the inventory boxes to existing and incoming residents for as long as possible. Due to the clandestine nature of the safehouse program, and privacy of the residents, I could not explain the inventory box program to the women and children inside the safehouse personally, but I received lots of enthusiasm from the staff members, as well as promises to present and maintain the program for years to come.

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

Several months prior to me beginning my Gold Award project, I read an article for a homework assignment about the Syrian refugee crisis, and more specifically about the intense psychological trauma – trauma so severe it should be called “Human Devastation Syndrome” rather than PTSD – experienced by the children and their families, who had fled unimaginable situations of violence, war, devastation, and gone toward an equally uncertain and frightening future. The article focused on the severely under addressed need for psychological care and trauma management among these survivors; and particularly the need to reshape trauma as it happened for the countless children arriving to Europe as refugees – turning the terrified children into brave heroes who had saved their families and ensured their safe travels across the Mediterranean sea.

When I first toured the safehouse at TESSA as I was searching for a Gold Award project, I realized that these women and children who have fled horrible situation of domestic violence and abuse are in their own way, refugees. These women and children turn to TESSA for an escape and for hope. While TESSA does an amazing job of focusing on the psychological care of women and children in the community, they cannot meet every need that occurs. I wanted to provide for these children a place to just play, and be kids; possibly helping to reframe some of the traumas they had experienced, just as crisis workers in the Mediterranean are attempting to do.

What did you learn about yourself?

I have learned many things over the course of this project including the importance of patience and time management, adaptive problem solving, and even some cabinetry skills! Firstly, I had several instances of “email tag” where I would send an email, only to have the recipient be out of town, and then have them reply while I was out of town or service. This generalized delay in communications (again, it was summertime and I and others are balancing work and the other events of life) did occasionally present some setbacks. For example, while I began work on my project in April, I could not get my official proposal approved until June due to various conflicts in the month of May. This instance and other things like it helped me develop some patience, and adaptability – as my timeline for this project was radically adjusted more than once.

Similarly, when planning my money earning activity, I originally wanted to organize a community yard sale where people could rent spaces to sell their stuff, and I contacted Sunrise Church to see about using their parking lot for this event. I did not immediately hear from their operations manager, and although I eventually got approval, I did not have a single community member ask to reserve a space at the sale and was forced to cancel it last minute. Instead, however, I was able to organize a babysitting night, which turned out to be very successful, and I was able to complete the project without a hitch! I know that many people, myself included, were concerned that  I was attempting to complete my Gold Award on such short notice, but through the process I discovered that I can work well under pressure, as I can better focus my energies and work with direction and purpose, which results in a project that is both thorough and well executed. And while it has been a bit stressful having my absolute deadline for completion of my Gold Award and my departure for college happen in the same weekend, I feel that it has not negatively impacted my project and I have learned from the experience.

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

Earning my Gold Award project has made me a more aware and active citizen at both the local and global levels. It has also given me the tools to take agency in my own life and the confidence to act on my ideas, and to do things purely for the benefit of others. It has shown me that I can do whatever I set my mind to, and has opened a new world of opportunities for me as a Gold Award recipient by showing others that I have the dedication to see a project like this through.

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

For me, earning my Gold Award is the culmination of my entire Girl Scout experience, and the chance for me to use all that I have learned as a Girl Scout to do something impactful for others. Personally, it has given me a new sense of confidence and has shown me that I can absolutely make an impact on the world at large and on things that I am passionate about. Its one of the most incredible things for me to be able to talk about something of this magnitude and say, “I did that!”.

Without my years of Girl Scouts experience, however, I do not think I would have had the wherewithal and the skills required to plan, organize, and execute this project as fully as I did, which makes the  experience all the more valuable. Through the course of my time in Girl Scouts, and through this project; I have learned so many valuable skills, had unforgettable experiences, and made some of my closest friends, all of which I would not trade for the world.

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

Through my Gold Award Project, I used every aspect of the G.I.R.L. platform to accomplish my goals. I was a “go-getter” because I understood from very early on that I had a limited amount of time to complete my project and was able to plan and set a timetable for everything that needed to get done. I was an “innovator” because I was able to improvise and revise my project when things didn’t work out exactly the way I thought they would, and because I was able to find a creative solution to a difficult problem in my community. I was a “risk-taker” because when I decided to take on this project, I did not know if it would ever get off the ground, but I decided that I was going to finish the project regardless of what went wrong along the way. And finally, I was a “leader” because I was able to ask for and organize help to complete my project, and bring people together to work toward a common cause and do something good.

**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