By Katherine Lam, 16, Ramona Convent (Alhambra)
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Girl Scouts Nicole, Jessica and Katherine (left to right) hold up the get-well cards they made for sick patients at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs. The first word that comes to mind when someone hears Girl Scouts is … COOKIES! This is my sixth year as a Scout, and I’ve found out that there are way more things to do than just sell cookies.

In fifth grade, I was just another lanky, glasses-wearing kid who watched Nickelodeon, fantasized about ice skating and dreamed about being a princess in a castle. I never thought about helping my community. When a friend invited me to a Girl Scouts meeting, I didn’t know what to expect, but I decided to give it a try. I figured that it was going to be another one of those things, like playing the recorder or ballet classes, that I would love for a couple days then get bored of in a couple months.

I was scared during that first meeting and kept to myself, but I decided to go to the other meetings because my friend went. In fifth grade, as a special treat during one of our regular meetings, my troop leaders invited a hip-hop dance instructor to teach us some moves. The instructor taught us to clap, step and twirl to Britney Spears’s "Oops!… I Did It Again." I had no coordination whatsoever, but I tried my best to clap and twirl in sync with the music. My friend and I giggled whenever one of us would waltz off into the corner. No matter how silly I looked, I had the time of my life dancing with my troop. Dancing gave me a hint that Girl Scouts would provide me with discoveries and activities that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. It made me feel like an accomplished kid because no one laughed at me. Everyone encouraged me to keep dancing like a diva.

I have never questioned why I have stayed in Girl Scouts for so long. I have had people throw me weird glances when they find out I’m still a Girl Scout, but that doesn’t affect me. Instead, I look at the positive aspects of scouting. As a Girl Scout, I earn project badges for things like horseback riding, painting and researching about Girl Scouts. Badges allow you to learn about or experience something you’re interested in and you’re allowed to complete as few or as many badges as you want. The greatest thing about badges is that there are so many to choose from.

Girl Scouts work hard

When I was 12, I moved up from the "Junior" level to the "Cadette" level, which added more responsibilities. To earn a computer badge at the Junior level, I had watched a parent demonstrate how to use some applications on the computer. As a Cadette I had to show my mom how to navigate Web pages. My mom rarely used the Internet, and didn’t know how to search for information. Teaching her was also difficult because English isn’t my mom’s first language, and I had to be patient while she asked what words such as "spam" meant.

It’s nice to have the extra responsibilities, but sometimes it’s frustrating, too. Two years ago, my friend and I had a term paper on the Magna Carta due the day after a meeting. It was hard for me to leave my paper for two hours, but I had to work on a badge. So I went to the meeting and that night we had to stay up into the wee hours of the morning scrambling to finish our papers.

Before I knew it, I began seventh grade and I started preparing for the Silver Award. The Silver Award is the highest award a Cadette Girl Scout can earn. It requires a community service project that takes extensive planning. Before I could even start the project, I had to complete certain requirements including at least 25 hours of leadership and community service. After fulfilling these requirements, I got together with two girls in my troop, Jessica and Nicole, to brainstorm ideas for our project.

Katherine makes origami with a girl in the pediatrics ward.

I started out with a list of 10 organizations that might benefit from our service, including homeless shelters and orphanages. Finally, we found Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. They agreed to let us conduct an art-supply drive in our communities and then we would go to the hospital on Saturdays and work on crafts with the kids in the playroom.

Once we had the supplies, then we had to cook up some creative craft ideas that would interest kids ranging from toddlers to 14- and 15-year-olds. Since it was February, we decided to make Valentine’s Day cards.

I learned what really mattered

As our troop leader, Mrs. Gin, drove us to Huntington for the first day of our project, nervous thoughts swam through my head. Would the kids be entertained? Would the craft be too easy? Would there be enough kids in the room? The maze of hallways added to my nervousness because hospitals creep me out. Arriving at the pediatrics ward was strange for me because I was once a sick baby in this same pediatrics ward many years ago.

We got settled into the hospital room with our crafts. Mrs. Farnsworth, the person in charge of managing the kids in the pediatric ward, then invited kids to do crafts with us. One important lesson I learned immediately was that kids just want to be happy and have someone to talk to. They were excited even as we pulled out the different colored sheets of paper.

Most of the kids we worked with were 3- or 4-year-olds. They tried to cut out little pink, red or green hearts to decorate their Valentine’s Day cards, but they struggled handling the "big kid" scissors. I cut out little colored hearts for them. Their smiles of thanks were enough, as they pasted on jewels or fuzzy balls after writing messages on the hearts.

Except for all the IV tubes and hospital jammies, you would never have suspected these kids were ill. I was sad at first because the kids should have been outside playing. But I cheered up when I realized that they enjoyed creating cards. It took their minds off their illnesses. I found out from their parents that most of the kids who felt good enough to come to the playroom were recovering already.

When we went to Huntington the next week, it was Valentine’s Day—my favorite day of the year because I’m a hopeless romantic and because it’s my birthday. When I walked through the hospital doors, a thought hit me—many people were too sick to have fun with their families and friends. They were stuck in their hospital rooms, with tubes and needles taped to their arms. Jessica, Nicole and I figured that we could cheer up these patients by making them cards. Along with the kids who were doing crafts, we decorated about 25 of our own Valentine’s Day cards. We walked around the ward handing out cards to the kids and their families. Dedicated mothers and fathers sitting next to their kid gave us a quick smile and thanked us. The patients who could smile looked thankful knowing strangers cared about them.

I squeezed in the volunteer work

During this project, I was frustrated at times. Saturday is usually my catch-up day for homework or for relaxing with my friends at the movies. But while working on my Silver Award, I’d sit down on Friday nights and write up a schedule of what I had to do the next day. It usually started out with running in the morning, sneaking a bite before rushing off to Huntington, then immediately heading off to piano. By the end of the madness, I would fall asleep on the ride back home, and after dinner, spend the rest of the night on homework.

Even though I had to give up my Saturday afternoons, I had a wonderful experience. The kids were my priority and their smiles made this worthwhile. I have learned that helping others isn’t an obligation. It’s something I do because I want to. It gives me a sense that I can make a difference helping people I don’t know.

It took me a couple years to realize that Girl Scouts has a deeper meaning. Scouting has made me believe that an experience is only as good as I make it. Five years ago, I would have seen myself becoming just another teenager obsessed with MTV. Instead I became a teenager still coloring Valentine’s Day cards and folding little animals for kids. I still get some surprised and even a few horrified expressions or cynical laughs, when I tell people I’m still in Scouts. I shrug off the negative things because there are people out there who think it’s cool I’ve stuck with this. Dancing with my troop, being a diva for a day, and connecting with kids have ensured that I’ll always be a Scout at heart.