As Girl Scout cookie season approached, Emily needed to craft her sales pitch. But her prep required a slightly different approach. The 16-year-old has cerebral palsy and global developmental delays and uses an iPad to communicate. So her request needed to be loaded on her iPad. Once it was, Emily started her cookie campaign and loved the reactions she received.
“She had a big grin on her face,” mom Amy Kavanaugh, of Hillsborough, New Jersey, told TODAY Parents. “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.”
Emily is a member of troop 60561 in Hillsborough made up entirely of children with special needs. While many Girl Scout troops welcome children of varying abilities, some children might not be able to participate in those meetings. But troop 60561 modifies Girl Scout traditions to match the girls’ interests and abilities.
“The meetings are little bit shorter and we keep it moving. We don't sit and have a lecture,” Kathy Kafka told TODAY Parents. “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).”
Kafka fondly recalled her own Girl Scouting experience and thought her daughter, Maya, 13, would also enjoy it. But Maya has autism and limited communication abilities and Kafka worried that she'd get easily distracted. Six years ago when Maya was in first grade, Kafka approached local troop leader Karen Briegs about creating a group that catered to girls like her daughter. It didn’t work out at the time, but neither women forgot it.
“It just became an idea that I wanted to take up,’” Briegs told TODAY Parents. “They deserve super special accommodations to make sure Girl Scouts is meaningful to them.”
Last year, Briegs heard about a religion teacher who leads a class for students with special needs, so Briegs thought that person could help her start a troop. When she met the teacher, it felt like fate: the teacher was Kafka.
“It brought us back together,” Briegs said.
The two collaborate to make the experiences resonate with the girls: Briegs knows the Girl Scout rules, Kafka knows what works for children with special needs. Sometimes it’s just simple changes that make a difference. Two of the four members are nonverbal so all the girls use red and green paddles to vote on decisions, for example. When they went caroling at a local senior center, Briegs found a creative way to make it fun for all the girls.
“She has instruments that she hands them, which they enjoy,” Kavanaugh said.
Already Kavanaugh and Kafka have seen their daughters’ confidence grow.
“I've definitely seen Emily being proud of herself,” Kavanaugh said.
The troop joins others for events, such as working at a cookie booth or attending special events. While joint projects help troop 60561 girls socialize more, it also helps the other Girl Scouts understand how to treat people who are different.
“To have the neurotypical girls get comfortable with our girls it's really important,” Briegs said.
And, the girls of troop 60561 are learning life skills, such as cooking, exchanging money and how to grocery shop. While Kafka isn’t ready to let Maya cook alone, she loves that her daughter participates like any other Girl Scout.
“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,” she said. “It makes me so happy to see her doing these things like I did when I was a kid.”