Differences bring girls together
Autistic girl and others learn life skills in special troop
by David Clouston, The Salina Journal, September 27,
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At the end of an album of snapshots, one photo shows a
confident-looking girl wearing her Girl Scout sash and having
fun hiking on a sunny day.
Participating in Scouting is one of her daughter Margaret's
favorite things to do, Grace Leu-Burke knows. So are dancing,
Halloween, swimming, going to the zoo and playing with Barbie
It's the photographs in the front of the book that Leu-Burke
says show how far Margaret has advanced since she was
diagnosed with autism at age 3.
Those pictures are of Margaret as a 2-year-old. She could not
talk and did not know how to play.
Supported financially by the Salina Area United Way, the Girl
Scouts of Central Kansas has helped Margaret, now a
fourth-grader, grow socially and intellectually, her mother
Opening a door
For the past four years, Girl Scout Troop 979 has provided
opportunities for girls with special needs. Leu-Burke started
the troop to assist her daughter, and she opened the door for
other girls with special needs to participate in Girl Scouts.
"What's nice about Girl Scouts is that each (merit) badge --
they have requirements, but they're pretty flexible, and so
they tailor it to what the girls can do," Leu-Burke said.
Autism is a developmental disability that affects the central
nervous system. Children with autism have problems
communicating and interacting socially in groups. About 15 of
every 10,000 births result in autism. Four out of every five
individuals with autism are males.
Leu-Burke had been a treasurer with her son's Boy Scout troop
and helped with scouting activities, but Girl Scouts was new
"I remember having this idea and thinking, 'OK, I'm going to
have to show what I'm going to do and have an outline and
everything,' " Leu-Burke said. "And I called (Girl Scouts) and
I said, 'I have this idea. My daughter has autism, and I don't
think she'll fit into the regular (program), can I have my own
little Girl Scout troop?' And they're, like -- 'Sure, we can
do that.' They go, 'Yeah, come down to the office and we'll
Karin Bigler, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of
Central Kansas, 1550 S. Broadway, said Leu-Burke's dedication
has been noteworthy.
"We really respect the work she's done. I know that Dr.
(Edgar) Rosales (a Salina pediatrician) has helped her and
even referred girls to be in her troop. She's organized and
really caring," Bigler said.
There are seven girls in the troop. They meet twice a month.
They go on field trips to places such as Salina Regional
Health Center to learn about employment, and to grocery stores
to learn about shopping for food.
At meetings they work on their parliamentary skills. They also
learn life skills by earning merit badges in Safety, Manners,
Good Food, My Body, Cooking, Nature and Science.
They learn about the world around them by earning badges in
Citizens Near and Far and People of the World. Once a month,
to promote physical activity and experience the outdoors, the
girls go hiking and do things such as picking up trash along
the trails at Lakewood Park.
"Some of the girls come from different challenged backgrounds.
Some have siblings who are disabled," Leu-Burke said.
Interacting in a small group helps the girls learn confidence
and skills necessary toward gaining maturity. Bigler said it
also helps those without disabilities learn they can interact
and be friendly with other girls who might not walk as easily
or speak as easily as someone else.
"We want to make scouting available to every girl who wants to
be involved," Bigler said. "Regardless of their cultural,
socio-economic status, we really want to serve girls."