For Girl Scout, helping others is golden

Severn School junior earns highest Scout service honor for a learning project in S.D.


Laura Williams discovered the subject for her Girl Scout Gold Award project in her church bulletin. A notice from the Presbytery of Baltimore caught her eye about a mission trip to the Hou Kola Learning Camp last July on a South Dakota reservation of the Lakota Indian tribe. Just right, she thought, because she was looking for a volunteer project outside her community.

A Gold Award requires 50 hours of work on a project, but Laura devoted more than 300 hours to her project, studying the educational needs of Lakota children.

She earned a spot on the 20-member mission team to the Pine Ridge Reservation, preparing a five-day education experience for the reservation's elementary-age children, working at the camp and returning home inspired to educate the members of Woods Church.

She called her project "Cultural Connections: The Lakota Learning Link," and it turned out to be a personal journey of exploration and education for herself and her church.

"It was a transforming experience," said Laura, a 17-year-old Linstead resident. " ... Part of my project was to enlighten members of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park about the Lakota Learning Camp since no one from Woods had ever participated in the mission. The other part was to go on the mission trip to positively affect the children's lives," she said.

While meeting the demands of an accelerated academic schedule and after-school activities, the Severn School junior found time over the past year to plan for and earn the Gold Award, Girl Scout's equivalent of the Boy Scout Eagle rank.

Scouting runs in the Williams family: brother Brian, a sophomore at Wake Forest University, is an Eagle Scout; her father, John Williams, was an assistant scoutmaster for Brian's troop; and her mother, Janet Williams, is co-leader of Laura's Troop 843.

Laura's other accomplishments include being an honors student, captain of her varsity swim team, secretary of Severn's Z Club, a service organization for women, an accomplished pianist named to Severn's Tri-M music honor society and a being member of the WoodsWork leadership committee for Habitat for Humanity for teens at Woods church.

For her Gold Award project, Laura's initial goal was to collect money to ensure that the 52 Lakota children on the reservation would have the supplies they need for school.

Before leaving for South Dakota, she gave a program for the children attending Woods vacation Bible school.

She told them about the plight of the Lakota children. She told them that on the reservation, 69 percent of the children live in poverty and 70 percent drop out of school before graduation. She received enough support to buy all the school supplies she needed.

On July 15, Laura left for Rapid City, S.D., with 19 other Maryland volunteers. In South Dakota, the group rented minivans and drove for two hours to the reservation.

"The minivans were very important," said Laura, "because we had to pick up the kids for the learning camp every morning. The weather was extremely hot, between 100 and 120 degrees, but it wasn't humid, and it went down to 60 at night."

Makasan Presbyterian Church on the reservation hosted the volunteers. Some slept in a small building, but Laura opted to sleep in a tent pitched on the Western prairie.

The children had no reading materials at home, so when Laura returned to Maryland, she began collecting books.

When she finished, there were 2,500 books ready for shipment. The books should arrive in time for this summer's Hou Kola Learning Camp. Laura, who will return to work at the reservation this summer, will help distribute the books.

Since the first mission, Laura has given presentations to church members and church youth groups and has made herself available after church services to answer questions about the Lakota mission.

Her friends aren't surprised if she greets them with "Hou kola," which means "Hello, friend" in the Lakota language.

"Thanks to Laura's awareness campaign, there is active support for future Lakota mission work and plans to further extend the support by the members of the church," said Karen Royer, family life coordinator at Woods church.

The Lakota children have had a lasting influence on Laura. Because of her experience, she plans to pursue a degree in medicine, social work or psychology.

"I believe her actions will have a wide-ranging influence over her lifetime," said Carol Wiles, mission coordinator for WoodsWork, "and the world will truly be improved by her caring involvement, her desire to look beyond herself and to share a vision which inspires others to act as well."

Laura and other Maryland Girl Scouts who have earned their Gold Award will be honored at a banquet next month given by the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. At the Gold Award celebration, Laura's mother, Janet Williams will present her daughter with her Gold Award pin. Troop 845's other leader is Amy Degenhard.

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