Chantal Mbiya and Badura Kiza love to dance. Chantal does ballet. Badura is into hip-hop and isn’t afraid to show off her dance moves. The girls almost finish each other’s sentences and were happy to share how they fared at their recent science fair — a first-place finish for Chantal and second-place for Badura. And, at just 11 years old, Chantal, a refugee from Rwanda, and Badura, a refugee from Burundi, are also trying to navigate the challenges of adjusting to a new country, new culture and a new way of life.
Tasked with finding a way to make a change for the betterment of their community, four Girl Scouts from Troop 27 in Ponte Vedra Beach wanted to make sure kids like Chantal and Badura continue to have what every kid deserves — to feel safe, to be happy and to have the skills and opportunity to succeed.
Alexis Magnano, Lindsey Blisko, Julia Peiris and Emily Rohan decided for their Girl Scouts Silver Award project they would assist area refugee students with much-needed school supplies, educational instruction and, as it turns out, genuine friendship.
What began as a community service project to fulfill their Silver Award requirement, however, became a full-fledged effort to help shape a better future for refugee children around the First Coast, and, eventually, around the country.
The troop was initially inspired to help area refugee children after witnessing the work of JaxTHRIVE, a nonprofit, peer-facilitated teen mentoring program that assists refugee students and that was co-founded by Alexis’ brother, Chase Magnano.
Through JaxTHRIVE, the troop members were also introduced to Kim’s Open Door, an area nonprofit that works with local at-risk youth and offers programs focused on refugee children.
Alexis Magnano, an eighth-grader at Landrum Middle School, had been working with refugees for two to three years through World Relief, and saw the impact her brother’s nonprofit and Kim’s Open Door were having in the community. As government funding for refugee organizations continue to decline, the Troop 27 members saw a greater need in the community.
“If you work together and get enough people involved, then you can make a change,” Alexis Magnano said. “I wanted to leave a positive imprint on my town.”
All four of the girls sympathized with the need to help young refugee students acclimate and recognized the difficulty of the transition. Blisko noted that some of the students were afraid of fireworks during the holidays or frightened by Halloween costumes because they were unfamiliar experiences or because of what they had witnessed in the places they fled.
“Having to leave your home and coming to a new place that you’re not familiar with, that has a different way of doing things, is really scary,” said Blisko, a ninth-grader at Bolles. “Some of them are used to being in a place where there’s a lot of war and fighting. … And I just wanted to help them and make them feel more accustomed to what we do here because it’s really tough to have to leave your home, especially to go to a completely new place.”
For Peiris, also a ninth-grader at Bolles, the project took on a personal component. Both of her parents are immigrants to the U.S., and helping younger kids acclimate to their new environment was particularly special.
“We went to JaxTHRIVE, and saw the refugee children, and for me, personally, it really touched me, and to hear their stories and see how we could help them,” she said.
The Silver Award
The Silver Award is the highest award a Girl Scout cadette can earn. According to the Girl Scouts guidelines, the Silver Award “gives you the chance to show that you are a leader who is organized, determined and dedicated to improving your community.”
To fulfil their project requirement, the four members of Troop 27 came up with CORE (Creating Opportunities for Reading and Empowerment), which focuses on helping refugee children in Northeast Florida obtain the necessary tools to succeed in their new environment.
“We came across the idea of doing a library, and then we wanted to incorporate getting them needed supplies, like schoolbooks, uniforms, etc.,” Magnano said. “It was all really fun, but I liked seeing how they reacted to all the stuff, all the supplies they received. They were all so excited.”
The troop organized book drives, partnered with other groups on donations drives and asked friends, family and community members for donations of clothing, backpacks and other school supplies. Rohan, also a Bolles ninth-grader, persuaded her Florida Stealth softball team to contribute to the project. The four girls also spent Saturdays mentoring and bonding with the refugee students.
“Seeing the kids grow and learn through our help was really inspiring,” Rohan said.
The shared bond between the troop members and refugees was largely forged through reading.
“I like reading to them and teaching them the stories, because watching them learn the words is really cool,” Peiris said. “I personally love reading, so sharing that love with them was really cool.”
The troop also refurbished an old bookcase and created a mobile library to encourage more reading — and the escape from everyday life a good book can provide.
“Reading for me is a big thing, because it expands your vocabulary, you learn about things, and it’s a way to relieve your stress, because with certain books you can travel, and feel like you’re in the book and in a completely different place, and normally those are good places,” Blisko said. “So, for them, it could be adventuring somewhere they can’t go or haven’t been.”
Teaching … and learning
The refugee students weren’t the only ones who benefited from the project. Although the troop members mentored and tutored the refugee students, they received valuable life lessons in return from the interaction.
“It’s taught me that not everybody has the same backstory, and you don’t really know what somebody’s been through until you talk to them, although you still can’t really fully experience it,” Blisko said. “They could have been extremely stressed where they came from, but you want these kids to have a normal childhood, playing outside, hanging out with their friends, and learning is obviously a big part of it.”
Said Rohan: “Going to Bolles, sometimes you don’t often have to think about people going through those kind of struggles, and, for them, fleeing persecution and coming to a new country and not really knowing anything just really opened my eyes.”
The project was aimed at increasing awareness of the plight of refugee children, including for the troop members involved.
“I think each one took something different away, but I think the main thing they took away was seeing how others live, and realizing it’s a scary thing,” troop leader Tiffany Blisko said. “Thinking about what if they had to leave their country and go to another one to learn their customs and their language and their educational system? So, I think that each one benefit=ed from that.”
Going for Gold … in Girl Scouts and beyond
Next, the troop members will go for their Gold Award, which is the highest award any Girl Scout can attain and must be done individually. According to the Girl Scouts, “as a Gold Award Girl Scout, you’re challenged to change the world — or at least your corner of it.”
The girls plan to take one aspect of the Silver Award project to individually focus on for their Gold Award project, and Troop 27’s leader said serving the community is the Girls Scouts’ primary objective.
“I think it’s their No. 1 priority,” Tiffany Blisko said. “To be involved in the community and helping families and children and showing girls where they can go and that nothing can hold them back as long as they’re willing to do the work.”
The girls are also working on a video to share their project with other Girls Scout troops across the country and hopefully motivate other girls their age to get involved and realize what they can accomplish in their communities.
“It’s showing that although we’re just eighth-grade and ninth-grade girls, we created this big of a project,” Magnano said. “We’re showing other girls what they can do if they work hard and set their minds to something.”
And being able to help make life a little easier and more pleasant for young students who are trying to find their way in a new world is the icing on the cake.
“They just have so much potential, and I just want to see them reach their highest potential,” Lindsey Blisko said. “It’s just really cool to see them develop and grow. You just want to see them happy, and you want to do everything you can to make that attainable.”
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