Every year, when the Girl Scouts of America begin to gather outside of grocery stores, pass around an order form in your office or maybe even go door-to-door through your neighborhood, you know it’s cookie time.
But it’s not just about the cookies. In the South Tampa area, there is a large community of Girl Scout troops who are actively participating in public service throughout their communities.
However, only 5.4 percent will ever earn the highest achievement within the Girl Scouts, the Gold Award.
Elaine Feaster, a proud member of Troop 1247 of the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, is one of them. Since 2017, Elaine has collected nearly 11,500 books and placed them into the hands of children who need them most. For that service work to promote literacy, Elaine has earned a Girl Scout Silver Award and, in May, the prestigious Gold Award. Her dedication includes launching a website, ScoutingforBooks.com, which offers resources tailored for schools, parents and children to improve children’s reading levels.
Elaine has a personal reason for championing the cause of literacy.
When she enters the third grade, right before her ninth birthday, she is diagnosed with dyslexia.
“We spent the entire third grade trying to figure out how this bright girl who was gifted, couldn’t function with reading,” says Jane Feaster, Elaine’s mother.
But Elaine continues to thrive academically through hard work, self-advocacy and access to books and reading materials.
Today, Elaine is a 17-year-old student at Freedom High School who has been captain of her volleyball team and is a member of the National Honor Society. She is heavily involved in multiple school clubs and extracurricular activities and does volunteer work outside of the Girl Scouts.
A lifelong dedication to community outreach
Elaine’s journey in the Girl Scouts begins as a Brownie in the first grade. She earns her Bronze Award, open to Brownies, by making and donating beds, pet treats, food and supplies for animals in shelters across the Tampa Bay area.
But Elaine’s involvement with community outreach stretches back to before the Girl Scouts. Her parents have been instrumental in instilling the dedication to volunteer and strengthen the community in any way possible.
In kindergarten, Elaine and her mother first become aware of the widespread issue of illiteracy in Hillsborough and surrounding counties. At Elaine’s school, her mother hears a teacher mention that the children could not take home books from the classroom. She questions why students would want to take books from school. They learn that, in many homes, children did not have access to proper, age-appropriate reading materials and had limited or no access to public libraries.
A few years later, Elaine’s dyslexia diagnosis strengthens her devotion to the cause of literacy. Initially, she feels discouraged by her diagnosis. Elaine says she did not experience bullying due to her setback, but more confusion from her peers. She achieves high scores on exams, yet is pulled out of class for extra courses to improve her reading and phonetic skills.
Elaine has a healthy understanding of her learning disability and how it initially affected her academically. She has been able to properly explain her diagnosis to other students, keep herself focused and remain on top of her school work to succeed no matter what. She thanks her parents for holding their support steadfast throughout her life and she is appreciative of the access she had to books and information to keep her reading levels progressing.
Her mother explains how Elaine was always a self-advocate.
“Even before she got her accommodations, she would march up to the teachers and say, ‘I don’t understand this, can you read this to me?’ Or, ‘I need more time.’ And she has always been like that,” Jane Feaster says. “She knew what she needed to succeed and she wanted to succeed.”
Through her research of illiteracy within the Tampa Bay region and nationally, Elaine has discovered some alarming disparities.
“In middle-income neighborhoods, there are about 13 books per child,” Elaine says. “But in low-income neighborhoods, there is one age-appropriate book for every 300 children. Up to 61 percent of low-income families do not have any books at all in their homes for their kids.”
This is a significant moment of self-reflection. Elaine realizes that if she did not have access to the resources she did, overcoming her dyslexia would have been a more difficult battle. It makes her consider the types of obstacles other children face, whether or not these children without access to books have learning disabilities. To Elaine, it is incomprehensible to not have any books at home. This difficult reality pushes her to discover ways to mitigate the gap in education among low-income children.
“If our younger population doesn’t have the drive to learn, we’re not going anywhere,” Elaine explains. “I want our society to flourish and grow and the only way to do that is to get resources in the hands of young children so they want to learn.”
This becomes the inspiration for her Silver Award and Gold Award service projects.
Making a difference
In the Girl Scouts, the Gold Award sets a precedent for other community members to get involved and continue the project within their own community. This award is open to registered Girl Scout Seniors or Ambassadors. Before one can present their Gold Award proposal, they must complete their Silver Award.
Elaine’s Silver Award project, which she begins in sixth grade, consists of a book donation drive that brings in more than 7,000 books.
Later, her Gold Award project collects more than 4,000 additional books.
Each book she receives during that project is hand-stamped with her website name, ScoutingForBooks.com, along with her slogan, “Read. Share. Repeat. Where no book goes unread.”
This encourages children and parents to re-donate books a child finishes and no longer needs to another child who does. Even if a book is passed along many times, winding up in a library or a classroom, children, parents and teachers can follow the address for the website to learn more about the prominence of illiteracy and how to access resources to advance reading skills. She also provides bookmarks and business cards to spread her website name.
Her book drive accepts all donations at all reading levels. No book was turned away. Adult and higher reading level books not donated to elementary schools were stamped with her credentials and donated to book boxes at her local YMCA for other community members to access. This ensured that the books would get their best use.
The website she launches as part of her Gold Award project, ScoutingForBooks.com, is a play on words, tying together the organization which prompted her to advocate for literary awareness, the Girl Scouts of America, and the notion that community members who have abundant resources can donate to those who are scouting for books due to a lack of access to books, reading supplements and resources.
Her website also provides interactive portals for both parents and children. This joint effort allows for children to read along with an adult. The portals are user-friendly and age-appropriate. That is important because, as Elaine points out, children who can not read may have parents who also can not read.
A large portion of the website is dedicated to guiding parents who are unsure of where or how to access resources such as books or reading supplements for their children. Here, parents can find multiple resources all in one place and understand that it is okay to seek help when trying to provide the best pathway to their child’s educational success.
ScoutingforBooks.com also provides ideas for school administrators to implement in their curricula. One of them is “Book Buddies.” The goal of Book Buddies is to provide reading packets to 34 Hillsborough County schools to encourage reading clubs within each learning community. The 34 schools are a mix of Title 1 schools, where at least 40 percent of the students come from low-income families, and non-Title 1 schools.
As the website gains traction, Hillsborough County School Board chairperson Nadia Combs recognizes Elaine for the Book Buddies program and forwards the reading packets and program ideas to other local academic services to expand the reach of Elaine’s ideas beyond Hillsborough County.
"Everyone benefits from it," Elaine says of the program's expansion. "Teachers are able to plan and execute their learning units more quickly."
Helping children build a foundation for achievement
Elaine wants children to know that it is not just about learning to read, but how to use the knowledge you gained from a particular book to make further educational advancements as they move through grade levels.
Through her own research, Elaine understands that children’s home lives often parallel what they experience in school and reinforcing the need to strengthen children’s reading levels in their daily learning environment can have a “domino effect.” This will hopefully encourage children to strive to find more reading materials and to expand their skills at home or elsewhere outside the classroom.
What separates her from other literary advocacy groups in the area is that many of them have a large team. She is only one girl doing this on her own, with the exception of the help of family and some close friends. While many other literary advocacy groups charge for their services, she does not. Those who need help and access the most can not afford it, so making her resources available for free has a greater impact.
Since the issue of illiteracy is deeply rooted in the social, economic and cultural divide, Elaine knows it is necessary that books and resources get into the hands of children and families who are already at a disadvantage in order to begin to level the playing field among the socio-economic classes in our communities.
For example, the reading packets and materials she has developed specifically for children enrolled in Title 1 schools include resources on where to seek reading help. The packets for non-Title 1 schools include information on how to give reading help to students in neighboring communities.
One of the more difficult issues to combat in relation to accessing proper literary materials is known as a “book desert.” Book deserts consist of a certain area where there are no books, or age-appropriate books in the household and no resources or libraries for children in that respective community. In book deserts, there is one book for every 300 children.
Not only do children have difficulty accessing physical books, but with modern technological advances, some young children aren’t even aware of how to hold a book. Since most modern reading is done on a digital platform, like phones, tablets or e-readers, Elaine recalls how she was, “baffled as I came across a child who wasn’t even aware of how to hold a book.”
“The child was holding the book closed, as if it was a cellphone,” she says.
Although we have fully evolved into a digital age, knowing how to read and write is essential for all significant forms of communication, including posting, texting and sending emails. All modern forms of communication do not just reside in a digital portal. It’s also necessary to be able to speak to properly communicate with the people you interact with daily.
Elaine’s Book Buddies program operates in Hillsborough County, but her website has been seen in many countries in Africa, China, Canada, and Australia. She has received feedback from people in Canada, Ukraine, Netherlands, Egypt, Germany, United Kingdom, and countries in the Middle East. She is proud to see her mission expand globally because she understands that illiteracy isn’t just a local problem.
All materials are accessible on her website so schoolchildren who do not receive the packet directly from their administrators can still access it. The Gold Award has had a huge impact on Elaine’s future life goal of obtaining a doctorate in education and introducing useful resources about how children learn into educational settings. Whether her work leads her into an administrative role or something even larger, Elaine plans to begin the next phase of her journey in the fall, when she applies to the University of South Florida College of Education.
For more information on Elaine’s work for educational and literary access, head to her website, ScoutingForBooks.com.