Congratulations to Ellie McMahon ’21 for earning the Girl Scouts of America’s prestigious Gold Award. The Gold Award is the highest accolade conferred by the Girl Scouts, awarded to fewer than seven percent of Girl Scouts after completing a minimum of 80 hours of service on projects that make a sustainable change in their communities and around the world.
McMahon—who serves as the leader of DELTA Service Club’s Children’s and Education Committee—is a strong proponent of early childhood literacy having learned of its immeasurable impact. Associated with the development of critical thinking skills and with fostering a lifelong love of learning, early childhood literacy often translates to a profoundly better quality of life. Despite its importance, however, youth in lower-income communities often lack easy access to books and reading opportunities.
“As a kid, I read so much; it was so critical to who I have become. There are people who just don’t have the same chance I had to read but would if they could. I wanted to share with these underserved communities something that was so important to me growing up. The impact of reading grows so much over time, so starting early is really important,” beams McMahon.
When it came time to choose the way her Gold Award project would support the community, it seemed only natural to focus on literacy. McMahon devised a program to collect books from the community to provide reading materials and reading opportunities for children served by Learning Together and WAKE Up and Read, two Triangle-area organizations that provide high-quality, equitable, and inclusive educational opportunities for young children and adolescents.
Beginning in November 2019, McMahon organized a series of donation drives asking for gently-used books for preschool-aged readers. That first book drive collected more than 300 books from the Cary Academy community. Had things gone according to plan, McMahon would have visited the students at Learning Together in the early part of 2020 to distribute books and read with the children, but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic dashed such hopes. Not wanting to let the children down, Ellie quickly rethought her project to ensure that the children would still benefit from reading with her, but from a safe distance.
“I was only about halfway through the project when the pandemic hit. At first, I didn’t know what to do – I hadn’t completed any of the goals I set out to do. So, I ended up making a YouTube channel where I would read the books. In addition to Learning Together, I shared the channel with a bunch of other daycares and preschools so that even though they’re dealing with COVID, they can have this resource,” McMahon shares.
Admitting that adapting to COVID was the most challenging part of the project, McMahon credits the challenge of adapting to the pandemic with helping her broaden her outreach. When Cary Academy shifted to virtual learning, McMahon began reaching out to her neighbors via NextDoor, asking her local community to set books on their doorsteps for her to pick up. “I was surprised at how helpful people were. People are so willing to donate their time and their resources to you. My neighbors not only donated so many books, but they would also write a little note on the top of the box, ‘I hope that everything goes well; let me know if you need anything else,’ I thought that was sweet. I’ve collected nearly 700 books to this point; seeing this huge audience come together in support of this project was cool.”
McMahon’s hard work has made a difference. Kathy Peterson, Former Executive Director of Learning Together, was effusive in her praise, not only for her effort but her ability to recruit others to engage in service: “Ellie has been wonderful. Her multiple book drives have helped not only our kids but their siblings as well. She also recruited a group of friends to help with wrapping for our Holiday Hopes. They were a huge help — we had fewer volunteers due to COVID. When we had items for two families come in late, Ellie and her friends stepped in, and we were able to distribute everything on schedule.”
After McMahon graduates this spring, her project will live on, as part of DELTA Service Club’s commitment to the community, under the guidance of Service Learning Director Maggie Grant and the Center for Community Engagement. As an alum, McMahon plans to mentor the next group of DELTA leaders in serving young people across the Triangle, which Ms. Grant credits to both McMahon’s character and the values instilled by her time in Girl Scouts: “Ellie is committed to making a difference, especially in the lives of children in our community. She embodies Girl Scout values by her willingness to always lend a hand, and I am confident she will continue to make Cary Academy, as well as the Girl Scouts, proud as she moves into her next chapter.”