When only 10 Girl Scouts nationwide are chosen for the National Young Women of Distinction award, “it’s a big deal” when two of those recipients come from the same regional council. “I don’t know if it’s ever happened before,” says Dr. Linda Farley, CEO of Girl Scouts Heart of Central California.
But it has happened now.
Leyna Reynolds, 18, of McClatchy High School, and Ayana Watkins, 17, of Christian Brothers High School, were chosen for the honor based on the measurable impact of their community service programs.
“It’s such a privilege to have one girl chosen, and so when we had two, it was a little unbelievable,” Farley adds. “I wanted to say, ‘Have them go back and double-check before we get too excited.’ We were just over-the-moon proud of the girls.”
Girl Scouts who receive the Gold Award — including about 50 this year from the Heart of Central California council, which serves 18 counties — are eligible to apply for the National Young Women of Distinction honor. Following the announcement for the national award last fall, Reynolds and Watkins each received a $7,000 college scholarship and a trip to Philadelphia, where all 10 winners presented their programs to about 200 attendees.
“This whole process has shown me the power I have to affect people and have an impact,” says Watkins, who created a symposium for 200 junior high and high school students to address the achievement gap for African-American students. College students, graduates and admissions personnel spoke at the event, entitled “Education Matters in Black Lives,” and a video replay was made available on YouTube.
On one evaluation form, a symposium attendee wrote: “I didn’t think I could go to college, but now I want to.”
“This really stuck out to me because it was proof I had positively affected one person,” says Watkins, who has been a Girl Scout for 10 years, and was recently accepted to Harvard University to study biology, with plans to become a physician.
Fellow award winner, Reynolds, hopes to go to Georgetown University to study international relations, with an eye on a career in diplomacy. Reynolds’ idea for her community project came from her experience in earning her driver’s license, which included an online course, a learner’s permit and classes at a driving school.
“I did the first driving lesson and it was pretty easy,” Reynolds recalls. “Then the minute I got home, I was like ‘Dad, let’s go out driving.’ So he took me out and it was terrible. Cars were honking. They were getting way too close. They were frustrated with me.”
Reynolds paused to analyze the situation. “I said, ‘What’s the difference here?’” And she realized that her easy driving lesson was in a car clearly labeled “driving school.” There was no designation on the family sedan.
“So I made little cardboard student driver signs and put them in my window,” Reynolds says. “At first I was like, ‘Oh my gosh this is so nerdy. My friends are going to see me.’ But it worked so well. It was a really good DIY way to do safety.”
With funding from the local Girl Scouts council and the Sacramento Ad Club, Reynolds produced 600 “Student Driver” decals. She worked with the national organization Impact Teen Drivers to get the decals into schools, and she made them available on a website dedicated to student driver safety.
But her project didn’t stop there. The young woman went to the California legislature to promote a bill on student driver safety, which would have required the DMV to distribute student-driver decals to teens with learner’s permits.
“I walked the halls and knocked on a million doors and made all of these pitches to legislative directors — phone calls and emails. I learned how to push,” Reynolds says. In the last session, a bill was introduced by Rep. Kansen Chu (D-San Jose), but it failed to pass. Reynolds hopes to renew interest in the bill during this session.
What’s next for the two young leaders? College, of course. Reynolds would like to move her student driver bill to the national stage. Watkins plans to remain involved in education, working with her school and St. Andrews AME Church in Sacramento to keep the symposium going.
“The Girl Scouts have given me a lot of courage and the confidence in myself and helped me with my project,” Watkins says. “They also remind me to stay open and use my talents to help other people.”