Feliz Navidad

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

They're in the first troop of its kind in Central Ohio, but they are hardly the first Girl Scouts to bring the joy of the season to others.

As part of their activities, and as a way for the girls to learn to help others, this Spanish-speaking Girl Scout troop from Whitehall spends its time making Christmas and get-well cards for the sick. They also practice carols to sing for the children at Nationwide Children's Hospital and for an audience of disabled people at Eastland Mall.

"They will sing in Spanish because we want to show our culture and our customs," said Yolanda Zapata, volunteer coordinator for the group.

"We want them to keep their maternal language so they will be bilingual," she explained.

Girl Scout Tania Velzquez, an 8-year-old third grader, said she enjoys the service projects.

"We want them to know we hope they're better soon with these cards," Tania said, adding that she thinks it's easier to get better with people's support.

For 11-year-old Michelle Cardenas these activities are an opportunity to learn while helping others, and she advises other children to do the same, since it's a way to make new friends.

The troop was founded earlier this year, said Girl Scouts of Ohio's Heartland Council spokeswoman Sara West. The council serves 30 counties in Ohio with 34,000 scout members. But these 18 girls and two leaders are unique.

"They're our first," West said, adding that nationally the Girl Scouts organization has been reaching out to the Latino community. The biggest challenge, she said, has been translating materials into the correct dialects of Spanish. And it was a tough sell to the Latino community because few people from Latin America are familiar with the Girl Scouts.

"They don't know what it is and they think it might be a cult," West said.

Another factor was that many families in the Latino community are "very tightly knit," West said, and "these mothers were not used to sending their daughters off to do activities after school. They need to feel very comfortable with the group and have to know the people running it well."

The troop was introduced this summer at a Spanish-language Camp Fiesta and has been catching on, thanks to dedicated outreach coordinator Carla Breckenridge and troop leaders who are mothers of some of the girls. In the Latino Girl Scout group only Spanish is spoken, but anyone is welcome to participate, Zapata said.

Activities like the carols and cards they're making this holiday season have the girls excited.

"Being hospitalized or having a disability does not make them different from other children," said Tania. "They are still children and they should be treated as such."

"We want to show the children that someone loves them," said Michelle. "I want to tell [the children at Nationwide Children's Hospital] that everything is possible, that the sky is the limit."