OLDSMAR — Recent Pasco High School graduate Susana Stripling said she had a common observation while volunteering at elementary schools.
"I see how much all the kids would rather play on their iPads and phones instead of reading,'' Stripling said. "You can lose yourself in a book. I love reading. So I decided to help them love it, too.''
Stripling's project — "Reading and Responsibility in Education'' — allowed her to receive the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouting, presented Saturday at the Nielsen Center.
She organized a community book drive and collected more than 800 books. She gave one book to each of the 660 students at San Antonio Elementary School, and extras went to teachers for their classroom libraries. Additionally, Stripling read to students in kindergarten and first and second grades.
"I think it made them feel important, like somebody cared,'' said Stripling's father, Jay. "They might not get a whole lot of anything there. Sometimes, even a small gesture creates a spark. If somebody cares enough for that, their eyes can be opened for somebody caring in other ways.''
Stripling was among 35 Gold Award recipients from the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, which comprises Citrus, Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Marion and Sumter counties. It recognizes sustainable and measurable service projects, which focus on community issues and require at least 80 hours of planning and implementation.
The Gold Award, available to high school-age students, is conferred to fewer than 6 percent of Girl Scouts annually. Approximately one million Girl Scouts nationwide have earned the Gold Award since its 1916 inception.
"These young ladies have educated and inspired us all,'' said Jessica Muroff, chief executive officer of the GSWCF. "They give us hope for the future of this nation. They are leaders. They identified issues and problems, then found ways to help solve them.''
Other Gold Award recipients from Pasco County included:
* Amelia Braman (River Ridge), who addressed the need for spare clothes and hygiene products for children who have accidents or spills at school with her project — "Learning With Dignity.'' Through the sale of para-cord bracelets, she funded her project and donated clothes, underwear and socks for the clinic at Cypress Elementary School.
* Taylor Harris (Sunlake), who educated young athletes and their families about the importance of sports safety and injury prevention with her project — "Let Caution Be The Option.'' She created brochures with sports safety information and injury protocols.
* Maya Hogan (Land O' Lakes), who created "The Garden of Knowledge'' at Classical Preparatory School as a place to educate children about the environment while in an outdoor space. She met with the school principal and teachers on ways for the garden to be incorporated into lesson plans.
Stripling had high hopes for her project.
For the most part, they were realized.
"When they were given the books, the students were very excited,'' said Stripling, whose project will be sustained by Pasco High's Cambridge Ambassadors Club. "I hoped they would start reading. I wanted them to realize it's not just about what their teacher assigns them. They can see how much fun reading can be.
"I went back a few weeks later and some of the kids said, 'Oh Susana, I read my book every day!' It was really cute. But I do think most of them picked up on it. I learned that you can make a big difference through something small.''
That fact was confirmed by Stripling's mother, Margarita.
"I helped distribute (the books) by pushing the cart and I saw first-hand that she helped to change a lot of lives,'' Stripling's mother said. "Susana has always been a reader. I think it helps to grow the brain. Books are important.
"Kids pick up on that. When she went back to school, those kids said, 'You're the book lady. Are you going to read us more books?''
Stripling, who recently received her Associate of Arts degree after taking dual-enrollment classes at Pasco-Hernando State College, will go to Nova Southeastern University. She's majoring in biology and minoring in leadership with an eye on medical school.
While preparing to go away for college, Stripling already is grappling with a dilemma.
Which books can she take?
"My interest has never gone away,'' Stripling said. "That's what I hope for all of these kids. I want them to know the love of reading.''