OLDSMAR — Michelle Ferlita has always been proud of her Italian heritage. But she was bothered while interacting with kids during volunteer work at camps.
"I noticed a lack of interest (in their Italian heritage),'' said Ferlita, a recent graduate of Plant High School who is headed to Mercer University. "I wanted to figure out a way to get them more excited about it.''
Ferlita's project — "Getting to Know Your Heritage'' — allowed her to receive the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouting, which was presented Saturday (June 9) at the Nielsen Center.
She worked with Tampa's Italian Club by speaking to young adults and children at the Festa Italiana and Campo Italiano events. She developed an Italian heritage book, which included basic vocabulary, recipes, traditions and history of the Italian culture and lifestyle.
Most meaningfully, she produced a video, where she interviewed 11 people of Italian descent (age 13 through 92) to learn about their family traditions and heritage.
"I was surprised that she picked a project on something that actually interested me,'' said Ferlita's father, Kenneth. "The culture gets watered-down from generation to generation if you don't embrace it. I give credit to Michelle for finding some creative ways to get people interested.''
Ferlita 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.''
A variety of causes were addressed by Gold Award projects. Ferlita's effort, though, was unique.
"I learned that the older generations tend to speak more Italian and have more stories to tell about the old Italian culture,'' Ferlita said. "Younger people don't necessarily have that. But I found that they (younger people) are excited about it and want to learn, once they get the right tools to seek it out.
"My favorite part of the project was doing the interviews. They were with some people I knew, but some people I didn't know. I got several hours of footage and there was lots of knowledge to be gained there.''
Among Ferlita's questions:
* What is your favorite Italian tradition?
* What do you think is unique about the Tampa-Italian community?
* What does being a part of an Italian family mean to you?
* How do you think Italian culture has influenced American society?
"When you think of the Italian culture, food and family always seem to be mentioned by everyone,'' Ferlita said. "The family aspect is big. I know my family always will be there for me. In the Italian Club, they may not be my blood family, but I can always count on them as well.
"I think the more you learn about your culture, the more interest you will have. That's what I wanted to accomplish with my project. I always thought it was important to know about your culture, but now I know that it's important.''
Contact Joey Johnston at email@example.com.