Four Austin Girl Scouts receive Gold Awards for their community service, making an impact locally and beyond.
By Brianna Caleri, Photos by Taylor Prinsen
When visionary Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in 1912, women in the United States hadn’t even yet won the right to vote. But Low knew so much more was possible for women if, in their youth, they were given the opportunity and tools to “meet their world with courage, confidence and character.” From the beginning, she aimed to ensure the organization was inclusive of all girls, a creed that remains a principle component of the nonprofit. And though other organizations have attempted to usurp the strength of the Girl Scouts organization, the truth is this: In a world riddled with boys’ clubs, the Girl Scouts offers young women the chance to develop strong leadership skills in an all-female environment that enables them to build the kind of resiliency required to make a real difference in the world.
Members of the Girl Scouts of the USA shine in their communities, rising to the challenge of the leadership opportunities made available as part of a world-famous organization of young women. At the peak of her career, a Girl Scout can earn her Gold Award for a project that takes at least 80 service hours and highlights a local, national or worldwide issue, with the goal of educating and inspiring others and setting up sustainable success after completion. Four local young women followed their passions to their Gold Award projects and beyond, creating lasting changes in Austin and persevering as change-makers wherever their journeys take them next.
Ellie Rose Mattoon is an excellent person to talk to when you’re feeling stressed. She is unimposing but chooses her words confidently and with so much precision that talking to her feels like talking to a friendly advisor. Last year, before she departed her public high school for boarding school, she left her classmates with a little bit of that stress-management magic.
Mattoon’s Gold Award project was a response to the stress she witnessed daily as a high-school student and the lack of resources the school had to address it. To help change the atmosphere, Mattoon reached out to club sponsors and athletic coaches, people she knew had close connections to the students. In response, 10 organizations joined the cause, including the Model U.N., in which Mattoon participates, which held a debate about stress-relief tactics, and the English teacher who coaches the cheer squad, who helped address test anxiety. With donations from the clubs, Mattoon created a “harbor” in the school library, a safe space that included “stress balls, stuffed animals, happy music and beanbags.” She also created a website for students who want to learn more, offering supplemental information about stress and how to effectively manage it.
Mattoon is happy to see the space being enjoyed. The school touts it as an asset to incoming students, and when Mattoon visited, she says “all the chairs in the library just naturally formed this big circle around the area.”
At her new school, where the students live together after hours, Mattoon says stress is harder to escape. Now she’s addressing the frequent all-nighters many students attempt, and raising awareness about the health consequences of caffeine and the benefits of sleeping versus test cramming.
She suggests developing patient attitudes. Time addressing stress is time well spent, and thoughts should be logically parsed out instead of pushed aside, she says. She also advocates a healthy body as a pathway to a healthy mind. Adults can help by adjusting their perspective and remembering teens now may have much more complicated expectations regarding their college educations and future economic prospects.
“[Many teens] cease to prioritize their socialemotional education and their social-emotional health and just their general happiness in life,” Mattoon says. “If you prioritize your happiness, your success will follow.”
“If you prioritize your happiness, your success will follow.”
Austin Woman: How does stress affect teens?
Ellie Rose Mattoon: There’s some statistics… about my high school that says there’s something like  percent [of students] showed symptoms of clinical depression… [and] 17 percent had attempted or thought about suicide.
AW: Who do you lean on for help and support?
ERM: I grew up with a working mother…who had to balance both her personal life and also managing others. I looked to her a lot when I was managing my volunteers.
AW: How can people ask for and offer more help?
ERM: I started out this project very scared to ask for help. [Girls and women] think we have to do it all by ourselves. I just realized that a lot of people in the world want to help you; you just have to ask.
One of the best paths to making a difference involves recognizing your natural talents and sharing them with the world. A self-assured and gentle composer with years of volunteering experience, Haley Betron merged her love of music with her ease with children, earning her Gold Award by developing her own system of music therapy to encourage younger kids to be their best selves.
Betron joined the Girl Scouts in kindergarten, and like many, continued for the social opportunities. But when she started work on her Bronze Award, painting game spaces on the blacktop courts outside the elementary school, she felt a fulfillment that changed her relationship with the organization. She describes herself as “service-oriented,” a trait developed through experiences volunteering with her family at soup kitchens.
Beginning to hone in on helping others with her musical talents, Betron earned her Silver Award by playing guitar and singing during Tuesday tea at a nursing home. She started thinking more about using music to help others, and already knew from babysitting that she connected easily with children. She began researching music therapy and became inspired to use music to foster values in kids such as kindness, gratitude, self-esteem and positivity.
Betron started in summer schools, teaching lessons during music classes once or twice a week. She continued for the whole summer, developing a series from lesson plans she’d already made and creating new ones based on character traits and themes chosen with teachers. To supplement the lessons, she found books at the library or bought them with donations and composed and recorded songs to sing with the kids. When summer was over, she started bringing the lessons to local elementary schools and teaching during her free periods.
The kids love the music. In every lesson, Betron leaves some room for improvisation, asking questions and incorporating the kids’ answers for a confidence boost. They’re also asked to share the good deeds they’re encouraged to do for others throughout the series. While teaching kindness, she also learned to embrace it more in herself.
“It made me more empathetic towards others and really think about other people,” Betron says. “It made me think about others—always—first.”
Music is proven to help with healing a wide variety of physical and emotional ailments, and Betron hopes to continue helping people after high school by pursuing public health and using music as a tool to unlock people’s greatest potential.
HALEY BETRON’S TOP THREE TIPS FOR STRENGTHENING YOUR CREATIVE IDENTITY
1. Embrace yourself. “Grow your own self. Don’t feel like you have to be someone else. Just be the best version of you.”
2. Help others. “You feel good about yourself when you’re being kind or you’re giving someone a compliment. I think the best way to…be the best version of you is actually to reach out through others.”
3. Set goals. “[Setting goals] grew my confidence and my abilities. Even if [the steps] are small, the small ones can build up to something really big.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but for her Gold Award, Victoria Saucedo aimed to raise a whole village. The bilingual Spanish and English speaker worked with a program in a rural area in Mexico that focuses on preparing grade-school students for better career opportunities and professional development.
Saucedo, a third-generation Girl Scout, is one of a dozen girls throughout the country chosen by Girl Scouts of the USA to represent the organization at the United Nations. The advocacy liaisons attended the Commission on the Status of Women, taking part in sessions and meeting international ambassadors. Each Girl Scout chose a topic, and Saucedo dedicated her advocacy to the need for more educational programs in rural areas.
The young and ambitious delegate says being bilingual allows her to understand issues, political or otherwise, through a variety of perspectives. Her cultural empathy, professional networking skills and family ties in Mexico led her to Hogar Infantil, a home for girls and boys, and an idea to prepare the students of one rural school in Ocozocoautla de Espinosa, Mexico, for career success and a better chance at breaking the cycle of poverty.
Saucedo already had some experience teaching English for two weeks in Ghana. For this project, she went several steps further, working with a team of 31 volunteers to draw up a curriculum. The program is divided into four units—job interviews, phone calls, emails, and business presentations and meetings—and compiled in a textbook. There are advice sections, vocabulary lessons and role-playing activities, and at the end of each unit, opportunities to practice and test new vocabulary. Focusing on professional settings and scenarios prepares the students with the type of experience that makes recent high-school graduates demonstrably more valuable to a company.
“Whatever you say, that’s eventually what turns into your character and how you act,” Saucedo says. “I think words are the starting point for whatever you’re wanting to do or accomplish in life.”
Students have sent Facebook messages after graduating the program, thanking Saucedo for the curriculum. Some of them share books with their friends outside the school, and Saucedo hopes she can extend the curriculum to other countries and languages.
“It helped me remind myself to keep my eyes open,” Saucedo says, “no matter where I go.”
“Words are the starting point for whatever you’re wanting to do or accomplish in life.”
AW: Why did you choose to focus on Chiapas, Mexico?
Victoria Saucedo: Chiapas is the poorest Mexican state. They have the highest poverty rate…at 74.7 percent. The extreme poverty rate is about 46.7 percent.
AW: Who do you lean on for help and support?
VS: I’m an only child and [my parents] literally put their lives on hold for 18 years for me. They don’t necessarily know everything but they’re always there by my side to support me.
AW: How can people ask for and offer more help?
VS: I think the most important thing is networking and really building a reputation for yourself if you’re wanting to do a project like this, or start something on your own.
Girl Scouts of the USA is a member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Isabelle Galko, a passionate environmentalist, has been both a Girl Scout and a Girl Guide, during her years in Australia, where she fell in love with ocean life and the Great Barrier Reef. When Galko returned to the Girl Scouts and the U.S., she started thinking about ecologically impactful projects. She took note of news articles that stated huge portions of the Great Barrier Reef were dead.
When coral is stressed, beneficial algae abandons the reef, leaving it starved and vulnerable to disease, a process called coral bleaching. This phenomenon is killing reefs and stressing the ocean life that inhabits them. The main reason for coral bleaching is rising ocean temperatures, an issue much beyond the scope of influence of one Girl Scout, but Galko noticed one area lacking in research: harmful chemicals in sunscreen.
“Everybody makes their own choice when it comes to sunscreen…whether to buy a commercial sunscreen or a sunscreen that’s more ocean- and coral-friendly,” she says.
Hoping to educate Austinites, who tend to be environmentally conscious and open to healthy change, Galko decided to focus her Gold Award project on a short documentary about the effects of sunscreen on coral bleaching. With planning help from Austin nonprofit Families in Nature and a scholarship from a connection at the University of Texas to go diving in the Florida Keys, Galko set out to capture the natural beauty of the reefs that would be destroyed by Hurricane Harvey just months later.
While there, Galko linked up with a group called the Coral Restoration Foundation, which creates coral “outplantings,” to help collect data about the coral. In addition to obtaining footage of the coral, she conducted interviews with dive experts about their research findings and boat captains who noticed that after touching fish without gloves, the fish developed cancers. Her film, titled Sunburnt Reef and available to view on YouTube, premiered at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. And last year, she took her project to the Our Ocean conference in Bali, showing that starting small is the first step to making sweeping worldwide changes.
“The big changes, I think, all come down to the local changes,” Galko says. “Every individual who makes a change will be impacting the future.”
ISABELLE GALKO’S TOP THREE TIPS FOR ENJOYING AN ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY BEACH DAY
1. Read the ingredients. “Make sure [your sunscreen] has titanium oxide or zinc oxide in it or it’s plantbased…instead of bad chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone [and] homosalates.”
2. Try alternative sun protection. “A lot of people don’t realize how simple it is to just put on a rash guard…instead of a swimsuit. You can put a shirt on top of it, or [wear] a hat or sunglasses.”
3. Be aware of your environment. “When you’re swimming…it’s very easy to walk around and maybe you’re stepping on stuff…or maybe you see a shell in the sand…that’s super important to an organism that’s living there.”