By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: January 16, 2009
THE little boy was strapped into a wheelchair, with a helmet on his head and a tube taped to his throat. Tiana Shippa, 12, was patiently helping him string beads onto a pipe cleaner. Mackenzie Kelly, 12, sat nearby playing with another child, also in a wheelchair. This boy’s hands were bandaged, and his body was covered with burns.
The boys had each suffered traumatic injury. One had been in a car accident; the other had survived a fire. They are patients at Blythedale Children’s Hospital, which serves children with complex medical and rehabilitative needs. Both girls, volunteers from Girl Scout Troop 2746 in Chappaqua, seemed oblivious to the boys’ injuries.
“When I first came here, I was not knowing what to expect, but after five minutes you realize they’re kids just like you,” Mackenzie said. “It’s no different than talking to your best friend.”
Julia Desmarais, 12, who was making paper snowflakes with an 8-year-old girl who had a feeding tube in her throat, said of the medical equipment, “After you work a little bit with the kids, you just don’t see it anymore.”
The troop has been visiting Blythedale Children’s Hospital here for eight years. What began as a modest effort — as 5-year-old Daisy Scouts they planted flowers on the grounds — has expanded into a commitment not only to volunteer at the hospital, but also to promote understanding about people living with disabilities.
The girls in the troop have designed their own badge, called Challenges to Opportunities. It is meant to help Girl Scouts understand physical and mental disabilities — what they are, how they happen and how they can be overcome. The idea is to demystify disabilities and to promote understanding that people living with such challenges are not very different from themselves, with their own hopes, triumphs and disappointments.
Among the badge’s requirements: Girls are asked to try activities that will help them imagine what it feels like to have difficulty performing everyday tasks. For instance, they may wear a blindfold and try to walk, button a sweater, tie shoes or count change.
SCOUTS are also asked to research disabilities and to talk to someone living with a physical or mental challenge about their lives.
And they are encouraged to volunteer. Some of the girls remember the first few times they visited the hospital.
“I remember being outside and seeing a boy waving from the window and we all waved back,” said Emily Simon, 12. “I was scared at the beginning, but I was just in first grade and I really didn’t know as much. Now it’s just not a big deal.”
As the girls got older, their activities expanded. Eventually, troop leaders and hospital administrators judged that they were ready to work with patients. Over time they began playing with toddlers and doing craft projects with older children. Last year, they began a Reading Buddies project at Blythedale, meeting once a month with preschoolers to read stories and do craft projects with them.
“We started with small steps,” said Lena Cavanna, director of community relations at the hospital. “We met with them several times. We would tell them about our kids, show them pictures of the equipment, have them experience walkers, wheelchairs and canes.”
The girls also decorated hospital rooms for the holidays, hosted a Valentine’s Day party, made fleece blankets for infants and held a fund-raiser to buy a Nintendo Wii system for older children in the hospital.
When they became junior scouts in the fourth grade, the troop decided to work toward their Bronze Award. They wanted to continue their commitment to Blythedale but soon discovered that there were no badges related to people living with disabilities.
“To the girls, it seemed like a shocking omission, and they said, ‘Why don’t we make our own badge?’ ” said Laura Desmarais, a troop leader and Julia’s mother.
The troop decided the badge should focus not only on raising sensitivity for the challenges disabled people face, but also on learning what people who work in the field do. The local council, Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson, approved the badge, and the girls earned it.
But then the council had a request for Troop 2746. Could its members put together a workshop that would allow other girls to earn the badge? The troop worked with Blythedale, and the hospital has now hosted two half-day workshops for Girl Scouts throughout Westchester and Putnam Counties.
At the workshops, girls were able to meet with occupational, speech and physical therapists. They worked with therapeutic equipment. They tried walking blindfolded, using canes. The girls also attended talks on subjects like injury prevention, where therapists talked about the fragility of the brain and emphasized the importance of wearing helmets when bike riding. More than 100 girls attended the last conference on Nov. 4, with a waiting list of 15 Scouts. Another workshop is planned for the spring.
The Chappaqua troop, meanwhile, is working on expanding the badge for older girls, which they hope to have included in the national handbook. Blythedale administrators described the Girl Scouts’ involvement as a “win-win” situation.
“We can provide our children with all the therapy, all the medicines, but these girls provide something else,” Ms. Cavanna said. “Being with other children from the community, where they will eventually return, gives our children a chance to be comfortable.”
The girls in the troop are in middle school now, an age at which the slightest difference can be fodder for cruel teasing. But these 12-year-olds seem to be gaining more than a badge from their hospital work.
“Kids who have problems are just like us on the inside,” said Kate Hawthorne, 12. “We’re just a lot more fortunate.”