Gold Award Girl Scout recipient inspires others with her community service project

In true Girl Scout form, Isabella Cook saw a problem, took action to address it, and helped make the world a better place along the way. When Isabella Cook attended court she felt completely comfortable.  After all, it was her grandmother sitting on the bench in Oakland County’s Family Court and Isabella was there as part of “Bring Your Child to Work Day.”  But Isabella couldn’t help but notice how anxious and afraid the other children in court felt and her grandmother told her that testifying in court was often frightening and difficult for kids.  

“She would tell me about how the kids she saw were always nervous and scared but there were no formal resources to make kids feel comfortable,” Isabella says.

Isabella’s grandmother and hundreds of uncomfortable children served as the inspiration for “Comfort for Kids,” Isabella’s community service project that earned her the Gold Award, the highest honor awarded by Girl Scouts.  In addition to earning Gold, Isabella was also named the 2021 Young Woman of Distinction, a recognition from Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan that calls out her project as one that demonstrates extraordinary leadership and addresses a global issue with measurable and sustainable impact.

Isabella, a member of Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan Council’s Troop 73220, knew she could come up with a plan to help those children and her Gold Award project began to take shape in the form of Justice the Court Dog. 

 “When I was researching my project, I found out that there is a correlation between how much a child knows about what goes on in Family Court and their anxiety level.  The more they knew about the court, the less anxiety they had,” she said.  “I incorporated a dog into the book because when I went to court with my Grandma I would see therapy dogs. Lots of kids love dogs and I thought it would be a fun and friendly way for kids to learn - through a dog’s eyes.” 

With her project idea in place, Isabella was assigned a mentor and she began shaping the story of "Justice the Court Dog and the Missing Gavel.”  Isabella, who will be a junior at Detroit Country Day School this Fall, also created an activity book and a website.  All materials are available in English and Spanish and the book is available through Amazon. Isabella worked hard to keep her book affordable.  She used money she earned as a babysitter and applied for a grant through the Making Friends organization, which covered the cost of the project and allowed her to send the book to 100 legal experts representing every state.

Isabella, a member of Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan Council’s Troop 73220, knew she could come up with a plan to help those children and her Gold Award project began to take shape in the form of Justice the Court Dog.
The book takes readers on a courthouse journey that begins when the judge loses her gavel and Justice sets off to find it.  Along the way, Justice meets the people who work at court – the judge, the prosecutor, the guardian ad litem – and learns how each of them helps the families in court.  The story ends happily when Justice realizes that she mistakenly buried the judge’s gavel instead of her bone.

The Road to Gold

Isabella is one of 13 from GSSEM’s 2021 class of Gold Award Girl Scouts. Girl Scouts in grades 9-12, known as Senior and Ambassador Scouts, earn the Gold Award. Recipients must first earn the Silver Award as Cadette Girl Scouts in grades 7-8, or put in work that is the equivalent of that award to be eligible to earn the Gold Award.  The Bronze Award, earned by Girl Scout Juniors in grades 4-5, serves as the foundation for the Highest Awards, all earned as capstones to Girl Scout achievements at each level.

Leatrice Thompson, GSSEM Manager of Council Programs, knows what it takes to earn the Gold Award.  She earned her Gold in 2003 and says of Gold Award Girl Scouts today, “The projects get bigger and bigger every year.  It just blows your mind!” 

Girl Scouts must invest a minimum of 80 hours in their Gold Award project and document the entire process, but Thompson notes that nearly every Gold Award recipient goes above and beyond the eighty hours because they are motivated, dedicated and the project reflects “something they love to do.”  Isabella spent between four and five months creating her project.

“First, we walk them though the process. The girls identify an issue, investigate it thoroughly and write a proposal,” Thompson says. “The proposal goes before a committee, and they approve the project and push it forward.  From there, the girls start working on their Gold Award.  It’s important that they build a team and investigate all of the steps necessary to make the project a success.”

At the end of the process, the girls meet with the Award Committee. They share what they learned, describe how they achieved their objectives, how the project benefits the community and how it changed them. 

“My project helped me build up my confidence and made me realize that adults will take me seriously even though I am a teenager,” Isabella says.  “I talked to a retired Friend of the Court referee to make sure I had the right information.  I was reaching out to tons of people all over the United States and I got so many letters back saying how they were using my resources in their courtroom.  I also got a string of emails asking when the book would be available.”

Leadership Learned Throughout the Girl Scout Journey

“The biggest thing girls learn through their Gold Award projects are leadership skills,” says Kenyatta Juniel, a mentor for the GSSEM Gold Award program who works for the United States Army.

“Each girl is solely responsible for ensuring their project is completed and they lead every aspect of it,” Juniel says.  “They are meeting with their peers and community leaders, elected officials and school district officials.  They are able to put themselves in a room and really make an impact.”

In 2020, one of the GSSEM Gold Award recipients created “STEM Without Boundaries,” a program designed to introduce young girls to STEM, breaking down barriers at an early age.  Maansi Nema designed and developed three STEM nights for students in the Novi School District.  The events reached more than 2,000 students and changed her life.

“Maansi went on to create a nonprofit organization called “STEM Without Boundaries” and she is now leading a nonprofit board full of adults,” Juniel says.  “This work has given her the confidence to lead in many other future situations.”

Thompson agrees and adds that leadership skills are part of the entire Girl Scout journey. She believes the Gold Award is the culmination of the Girl Scout experience in which girls positively impact their communities as well as themselves. Thompson says it’s not uncommon for the Gold Award to lead to a lasting connection with Girls Scouts, including acting as a Gold Award mentor like Juniel.

“My summer intern earned her Gold Award in 2018.  She earned her Gold, was named the GSSEM Young Woman of Distinction, and was a National Gold Award Girl Scout by the national organization Girl Scouts of the USA. Girl Scouting never leaves you.  You are always looking to give back in ways that people gave to you.  What these girls are doing is phenomenal,” Thompson says.

Isabella says she will stay involved and would encourage others to join Girl Scouts because “it’s a fabulous way to make lifelong friendships and help your community at the same time.  I also would tell girls that it taught me how to be a leader.  I have been a Girl Scout since kindergarten and it’s always been one of my favorite things to do.”

To learn more about the Gold Award, visit www.gssem.org/gold. Opportunities to help fund Gold Award projects or volunteer to mentor and support a prospective Gold Award Girl Scout are also available.
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