Moms make scouting more ‘meaningful’ with Girl Scout troop for special needs kids

It’s not just a cookie! More than enjoying a tasty treat, when people purchase Girl Scout cookies they help power leadership development and entrepreneurship, build confidence, enhance teamwork and planning, and create wonderful memories for Girl Scout troops.

Now three women have formed their own Girl Scout troop to make scouting more meaningful and inclusive, one that specifically caters to special needs children.

Girl Scout troop #60561 was formed when a group of mothers from Hillsborough, New Jersey decided to share their own wonderful Girl Scout experience with their children. Many Girl Scout Troops welcome children with varying abilities, but it might be difficult for some girls to participate in meetings and other activities.

Courtesy Karen Briegs

Hillsborough Troop #60561 caters exclusively to children with disabilities, and matches Girl Scout traditions to the member’s interests and capacities.

According to Kathy Kafka, “The meetings are little bit shorter and we keep it moving. We don’t sit and have a lecture. We know the rules: We’re going to sing a song. We’re going play a game that is only going to take a few minutes. And if the kids need a break, (they take a break).”

Kathy wanted her daughter Maya, 13, to enjoy the Girl Scout experience she had as a child. However, Maya has autism and limited communication abilities, and might easily be distracted. Kathy explored the idea of forming a Girl Scout troop for special needs kids as early as six years ago, when

Maya was still in the first grade. At the time, she approached Karen Briegs, the local troop leader, but things didn’t work out. Both women, however, never lost track of the idea. Karen said, “It just became an idea that I wanted to take up. They deserve super special accommodations to make sure Girl Scouts is meaningful to them.”

Courtesy Karen Briegs

Last year, Karen thought about starting the Girl Scout troop when she heard about a religion teacher who led a class for special needs students. The meeting can’t be described as anything but fate because the religion teacher turned out to be none other than Kathy. “It brought us back together,” Karen said.

The two women’s skills were exactly those needed to form the Girl Scout troop – Karen was an expert on Girl Scout rules while Kathy knew how to manage special needs children. The unique and inclusive Girl Scout Troop currently has three members who have joined a number of Girl Scout activities, including gymnastics competitions, cookie sales, troop meetings, and other special events with other children.

The interactions benefit both groups, as increased socialization helps children with special needs, while other kids learn how to understand, communicate with, and treat differently-abled children. Karen stressed, “To have the neurotypical girls get comfortable with our girls, it’s really important.”

The Girl Scout troop experience has already brought about positive changes. Emily Kavanaugh, 16, had to adjust her spiel in preparation for the Girl Scout cookie sale season. Born with cerebral palsy, she uses an iPad to communicate due to developmental delays. With the request and sales pitch loaded into her iPad, Emily jumped right into the Girl Scout cookie campaign and has enjoyed the reactions she received from receptive patrons.

Mom Amy said, “She had a big grin on her face. She responds very well to positive reinforcement and encouragement and praise and people responded very positively to her actually asking them to help with the cookie sale.”

Courtesy Karen Briegs

The mothers collaborate and have made simple creative changes to cater to the specific capabilities of Girl Scout troop #60561. Two members are nonverbal, so they use red and green paddles to vote on decisions. When they went caroling, all the children still had fun as the other girls played instruments while the others sang Christmas tunes at the local senior center.

Amy said her daughter had a great time and her confidence has grown with the group. “She has instruments that she hands them, which they enjoy. I’ve definitely seen Emily being proud of herself,” she said.

The group leaders have already introduced the girls to other life skills usually taught to Girl Scout troops, such as learning the Girl Scout promise and law, cooking, sewing by making beds for pets, buying items at the grocery store, doing arts and crafts, and working on service projects. Ability levels are considered, and the girls participate in all planned activities like any other Girl Scout.

Amy said, “When you have a child with special needs or challenges you want them to have the normal things that other kids might take for granted. It makes me so happy to see her doing these things like I did when I was a kid.” Karen added, “We’re trying to give them as traditional a Girl Scout experience as we can. Some of it is going to work for them some of its not.”

The troop holds its meeting at GiGi’s Playhouse in Hillsborough, a nonprofit that works with children with Down Syndrome. The troop leaders are working on a program that will accommodate everyone’s needs while still considering each child’s specific capacities.

They hope to grow the group’s membership to around five to eight girls and perhaps inspire others to form their own Girl Scout troops for children with special needs.