When Juliette Gordon Low founded Girl Scouts in 1912 on the proceeds from a pearl necklace, she envisioned a club to lure girls from their homes to the world beyond. Soon, girls in her Savannah, Ga., hometown and elsewhere were playing basketball, camping, and hiking in their knee-length blue skirts; Girl Scout cookies weren't far behind.
But cookie sales and camping trips are so ... domestic.
Not so with Stacey Berkley's Girl Scout "career," which has spanned 15 years and swept her from home in Columbus Station, Ohio, to El Salvador and back.
Last month, she was among 10 scouts nationwide named Young Women of Distinction by the national Girl Scout organization. The honor was in recognition of her work in refurbishing the Santa Telca, El Salvador, orphanage just outside San Salvador from which she was adopted as an infant.
The oldest of 10 children all adopted from abroad Miss Berkley visited the orphanage in the summer of 1998, when her parents took her and younger brother Kyle who hails from the same orphanage to their birthplace. Berkley's parents, active in an adoptive-parents group called Consent for Children, hoped to give Stacey and Kyle a sense of their first home.
For Berkley, who had no memory of her infancy in El Salvador, it was a return to a whole new world. "I thought [San Salvador] was going to be run-down, but it's not. It's such a beautiful city," she says. "It made me feel proud like, 'Wow, this is where I come from, and it's such a beautiful country; everyone there is so beautiful.' "
Berkley spent several days at the orphanage alongside other American adoptees and their families, helping a medical team while other volunteers painted and repaired rooms.
Berkley saw the children's glee as they grasped her necklace and earrings and marveled at the toys she'd brought them. "All the kids came running up, really fascinated," she recalls. "I saw they didn't have toys like we [in the US] do.... The toys were put really high, so they couldn't play with them. And they didn't have a lot of clothes or anything we have and take for granted."
Back home, that memory of wistful need kept brewing. Berkley struckon the idea of refurbishing the orphanage and filling it with toys as a community service project. This would be part of working toward her Girl Scout Gold Award the highest Girl Scout honor, awarded to 3,500 young women each year.
Over the next few months, Berkley wrote more than 300 letters to local and national companies, explaining her goals. "I asked, like, everyone," she says. She didn't solicit money, but requested material donations and received, in return, tools, paints, soccer balls, crayons, stuffed bunnies, and mountains of clothes and other toys.
Two years after her first trip, with piles of donations and a group of 60 adoptees and their parents, Berkley returned to El Salvador on another journey with Consent for Children. The crew hauled duffel bags full of clothes, medicine, and toys, with personal items crammed into tiny suitcases.
When their buses rolled through the orphanage gates, little girls were lined up, waving heart-shaped smiley faces on Popsicle sticks; down the road, small boys congregated on their building's steps "like little gentlemen," she says but they cut loose when Berkley's group got closer and they saw the toys.
"It was really cool," she says.
The main challenge of that week, says Berkley, was keeping the children out of the room where toys and clothes were heaped and sorted. "They all kept trying to sneak in and take the toys," she says, with a laugh. "They were really excited."
When Berkley wasn't guarding the hills of toys or playing with children, she fed babies their lunches and again helped the medical team.
Now a freshman at Kent State University in Ohio, Berkley has already declared a major in international relations. "I want to be able to help people in other countries and help people here and try to do the two of them together," she explains.
So the celebratory trip to Washington, D.C., last month, when she and nine other veteran Girl Scouts were lauded as national Young Women of Distinction, was a dream come true. Tossing aside her Girl Scout garb for a power suit, she shadowed a mentor at the US Agency for International Development: "It was just awesome being there and sitting at a meeting while they discussed Ethiopia. I loved it."
Another highlight was Berkley's VIP House-and-Senate tour by Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs a tour that included a ride in an elevator used only by members of Congress and a peek at the luxurious break room for female legislators.
Berkley and her fellow honorees also spent a day lobbying senators and members of Congress to support Girl Scouting and Berkley penned a speech for Ohio Rep. Sherrod Brown to read on the House floor. At an awards ceremony, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave Berkley a big hug, and presented her with an emerald-studded gold pin.
At a gala dinner, Berkley wearing a sparkly black dress sewn by her mom was escorted by former American Bar Association President Martha Barnett down a runway in front of 1,100 admirers, including Alma Powell (wife of Colin Powell), Elizabeth Dole, Laura Bush, and her own mom, Lynne.
Berkley's early ambition was to be president of the United States until she realized that you must be born in the US to be eligible for the office. But, she says happily, "I'm cool with being a congresswoman, or a senator, or with working in an embassy."
The Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting, is presented for outstanding accomplishments in the areas of leadership, community service, career planning, and personal development.
A total of 3,500 Gold Awards are presented each year. From those recipients, only 10 are selected as Young Women of Distinction to honor their exceptional community-service projects.
Besides Stacey Berkley (see main story), this year's winners are:
Christelle Geisler of Hickory, N.C., who created a brochure for grieving teens.
Katherine Grimes of Federal Way, Wash., who founded an autism support group for parents.
Elsa Hiltner of Shorewood, Wis., who established a store where low-income people could obtain clothes.
Noorain Khan of Grand Rapids, Mich., who helped develop an Islamic youth center.
Maria del Mar Ceballos of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, who provided special ballet-therapy equipment to two San Juan centers serving those who have been diagnosed with HIV.
Sandra Marshall of Eastlake, Ohio, who started a support group for teen diabetics.
Tami Reed of Houston, who developed a project to teach the fundamentals of science to children ages 5 to 11.
Heather Samuelson of Palm Harbor, Fla., who acquired 100 computers, which she refurbished and gave to disadvantaged students. She also arranged tutorials for students and their parents.
Nina Vasan of Vienna, W.Va., who founded and is president of the American Cancer Society Teens organization.