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A Young Life Spent In Service For Others

02 January 2015 Written by  By Justine Del Monte
Published in January 2015 Articles

As a young child, I wanted to be a Girl Scout and wear a vest with patches, like the big girls — who were probably nine years old — were wearing.

So when I was four years old and in kindergarten, I became a Daisy. At the time, there were 20 of us in Troup 30458.

Every month we would engage in some community service project. These outreach activities always seemed important to us and would include such things as assisting elderly shut-ins in whatever way we could, engaging in park cleanup projects, and singing for the residents of a local senior living facility. We would send holiday gift boxes to the troops and, when we had developed our writing skills to a sufficient level, would write letters to them.

When I was in first grade, I became a Brownie and it was a proud day when I became recipient of my new vest and badges. Four years later, in 2011, as a fifth grader, I finally became a real Girl Scout. The character of outreach projects changed at that point and we were challenged to engage in a series of award projects.

I did my Silver Award project when I was a 12-year-old seventh grader. This required personal planning and implementation on my part. I chose to do a series of six food drives — three at my school and three in the community. I made flyers and signs, sent out emails, and enlisted friends in collecting food. It turned out to be satisfying to have a project that I myself was able to control and to know that I was responsible for the project’s success.

Completing the Silver Award entitled me to begin my Gold Award project. This was a serious effort — equivalent to the Boy Scouts Eagle badge. Gold Award had to be a project I would do by myself and was required to be sustainable, tangible, and to have some kind of global component while making an impact on the local community. I had to perform a required number of hours and to complete some fairly rigorous preliminary work. I was 13 years old when I started and had just graduated from eighth grade. I spent five months working on the project, beginning in June and finishing in November. The project began with me doing a proposal describing what I would do, how I would do it, and the results that I looked for.

The most difficult challenge was attempting to ensure that I could effectively reach people in my community. I based the project upon my belief that reading can influence childhood develop­ment — not just cognitively but socially, as well. Fortunately, I had a product that I could use to demonstrate that belief. When I was 11 years old, an English teacher, Mrs. Moresco, gave me a school assignment to write a poem suitable for first graders, so I dashed off a short piece called “Drew’s Dancing Drum.” The writing took only a few minutes of my time. A guest who had been staying with us at the time, Samantha, worked with the Big Sisters Program. She read my little piece and said that people would enjoy it.

I read it to a family friend and gifted commercial artist, Brandon Chappell. Brandon not only loved the story, but was inspired by it to the point that he said that he would do the artwork and turn it into a children’s book. I had never imagined that my little poem could ever become a book. Before Brandon was finished with it, “Drew’s Dancing Drum” had became more than a book. He turned it into an interactive children’s app. People began downloading the app. Requests began coming in asking if we could translate the app and before long it was available in both Spanish and Mandarin.

The entire event had been a little dazzling. I was still just turning 13. Perhaps there was some advantage in the fact that it had been written by a person who was little more than a child herself. It was written on a level that communicated with children and contained messages that taught children life lessons without the little readers knowing they were being taught. We learned that someone took the book home, read it to her children, and they wanted me to write another book.

Brandon agreed that I should write a second book. It was a little scary because I hadn’t really intended to write the first book, but had just dashed off a little poem. So I sat down and spent ten more minutes writing a sequel that I called “Drew Meets Boo.” Brandon illustrated that as well, and it also began to attract a lot of attention. People loved it.

I decided the books would be the content of the Gold Award project. When I began analyzing the books, I discovered there were more messages than I had intended to write or even imagined that I had written. In the first book, the main character gets bullied, loses his way, and then his dad makes him realize how to be happy again by pursuing his dreams, no matter what anyone says. It’s the kind of fail to teach. So I rolled the books into my Gold Award project and proposed using the two books as the basis for teaching life lessons to children. I wrote a series of discussion points that educators and parents could use as tools for talking about such topics as bullying, friendship, family, self-esteem, empowerment, forgiveness, and kindness.

The two apps are electronic versions of the books. The first is totally free on drewsbooks.com. The second one costs $1.99. All proceeds are donated to charities including Girl Scouts, the Contra Costa Food Bank, KVCR’s Autistic Children’s Program, and an orphanage in Nicaragua. I’ve also donated 255 books to schools, libraries, and national children’s programs. The combined books have had 8,000 downloads and the apps have been downloaded in 76 countries. This has all been done by word of mouth. We haven’t spent a dime on PR or advertising. The word keeps getting out, however. One of my friends’ mothers, for example, had a connection with KVCR. The producer loved the books and interviewed Brandon and me for a piece on anti-bullying.

The Girl Scout Troop Leaders at Palmer School all gave me wonderful support at every step of the project, but they allowed me to enjoy the freedom to do what I wanted to do. I’ve remained a dedicated Girl Scout since those early days, though some of my fellow scouts have moved to other schools, priorities have changed, and other activities have diverted them away from the troop so that now only five of us remain. Three of us have been there since we were Daisies. My wonderful mother, Jacquie, has been Scout Master almost as long as I’ve been a scout. She’s been with me every step of the way through the amazing journey I’m on. I love her! I’m proud of her! She’s one of my heroes! My father, Charles, has been the best Girl Scout dad it is possible to imagine. He was our taxi driver, the cook at our slumber parties, and supervisor when we needed supervision. He has supported me in every way possible.

When I was four years old, my Mom took me to a birthday party at Walnut Creek’s Civic Park. While we were having fun, we could see a homeless family hanging about the park. When we were packing up to leave, the host mom thoughtfully packed up the leftovers and gave it to the unfortunate family. Something about that generous act and the gratitude expressed by the family set something burning in my spirit. My own birthday was a month later and when I got home I shared with my mom what seemed to me to be a thrilling idea. I told her to notify all my friends and tell them not to bring me any birthday presents but, instead, to bring peanut butter and jelly so we could make a big stack of sandwiches to take to the homeless family.

Mom explained to me that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would be gross and slimy after a couple days, so we settled on canned goods. When the other kids heard about the idea, they were excited too. Some of them got creative and brought a whole meal, with some soup or other kind of main dish together with vegetables, fruit, sodas, and something sweet for dessert. Others brought boxes of their favorite breakfast cereal. Mom explained that the homeless family was no longer at the park so we donated the whole thing to the local food bank.

Mom told me years later that she had been thrilled by my generous act and by the very fact that I would have come up with such an unselfish plan. Some of Mom’s friends complimented her on my act, but assured her that the food bank party would be a one-time thing. I guess they figured that another Barbie doll or inline skates would quickly become more important in my eyes than giving cans of corn to the homeless. However, they had no idea how much joy I got from seeing that homeless family getting some food to eat, nor could they imagine my sense of satisfaction at watching that truck drive away, filled with food that would keep homeless families from going to bed hungry.

So a year later, when my six-year-old birthday rolled around, I had not a moment of indecision about what kind of party I would have and encouraged my friends to not bring me any presents but to bring even more food than they had the year before. I imagine some of mom’s friends thought two years would be my limit but three months ago, on September 26, I turned 14 and for the tenth time my friends came to my party bearing bags, boxes, and crates of food items for the homeless. I can’t remember my third birthday so I can’t remember ever not doing a personal food drive for my birthday. All of my friends are older, of course, and have some disposable income with the result that we collect so much food it takes two vehicles to haul it to the food bank — nearly 400 pounds of all the non-perishable food items you could imagine. I learned a few years ago how fortunate it is that I have a September birthday because it is the beginning of the holiday season, which represents a huge increase in demand for the food that the Food Bank disburses.

Once a year seemed too infrequent a cycle for helping the homeless, so we also conducted mini-food drives at various Girl Scout events at Palmer School where I attended from kindergarten through the eighth grade. My food drive birthdays have demonstrated a pay-it-forward power because parents have told my Mom that their children are asking for “experienced” — by which they mean lightly used — clothes and toys for their birthday to give to the disadvantaged children, rather than receiving traditional birthday presents.

During my freshman year in high school, a teacher assigned us to write an essay about something we experienced in our lives, so I wrote about my birthday projects for the homeless. The teacher expressed surprise at my story. “I never knew a child who wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their birthday,” she said. I was surprised at her surprise because I never imagined there was anything special about my experience.

I am currently in the 9th grade at Athenian School in Danville. It is a wonderful school. I intend to go to college and major in a medical field. Whatever I do, I want to do something to make the world a better place and especially to serve my community in any way I can. I’ve learned that I have gifts for helping others; I intend to not let those gifts sit idle but to put them into service for others and for Heaven’s sake.

Read 5222 times Last modified on Friday, 02 January 2015 19:50
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