The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest and most prestigious award Girl Scout Seniors can earn.
Akin to the Boy Scout's Eagle Scout rank, the Gold Award requires participating Girl Scouts to implement a Take Action project.
"We have to identify something that we're passionate about and use it to do some good in the community," said Mary Lauren Shea, 16.
Shea, who lives in the Royden neighborhood off Carmel Road in south Charlotte and is pursuing her Girl Scout Gold Award this year, knew she wanted to do something involving dance.
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"I have been dancing since I was 3 years old," says the Charlotte Latin School sophomore, who is a member of the Jami Masters School of Dance company and of her school's dance team.
Shea decided the best way to share her talent and passion for dance was to offer her expertise to the Mecklenburg County Department of Park and Recreation. She was put in touch with Peggy Walker, a therapeutic recreation specialist with the department.
Most of Walker's programs focus on teaching independent-living skills to young adults with disabilities, but Walker also oversees the county's All About the Arts program, which includes teens with disabilities. Participating teens have diagnoses that include Down syndrome, autism, Asperger's syndrome, mild hypotonia, developmental delays, genetic disorders and cerebral palsy.
"I jumped on the opportunity to have Mary Lauren work with my All About the Arts program," said Walker, who has participants put on a show together. With Shea as choreographer, Walker chose the musical "Grease" as the next production, something "the kids and the families were really excited about," she said.
"I started assisting with the play they were doing in January so that I could get to know the kids and they'd be comfortable with me," said Shea. By the time she began teaching them dances and moves for "Grease," both she and the participants looked forward to seeing each other every week.
Walker described Shea as very enthusiastic and energetic and said she appreciates how patient Shea is with participants.
"I have noticed (that) when she comes in with choreography for a dance that the participants are having trouble learning, she modifies the dance to make it work," said Walker.
For her part, Shea said she has found it gratifying to see how the participating teens have taken to dancing.
"A lot of them have trouble reading or expressing themselves in traditional ways, so this is a different form of expression for them," she said.
With no prior choreography experience, Shea said, she enjoyed seeing the dances she conjured up "come to light."
Shea recruited friends and fellow dancers from her dance team at school and the Jami Masters company to assist with the choreography and teaching the dances to the cast.
Part of her Gold Award is based on effectively communicating a community need. "I want to get the word out that there is this wonderful program in Charlotte and that we can all volunteer and help out," she said.
Shea has devoted several hours every Saturday to doing her part, and said she hopes she has inspired friends and peers to do the same.
Walker said she is thrilled.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," she said of the way program participants have taken to the choreography and the other challenges of the performance.
"Hopefully, audience members will leave the performance knowing that all individuals can accomplish anything," Walker said. "It just may take a little more time for some."