OLDSMAR — Pasco High School's Megan Simonelli was justifiably proud on June 8, during graduation ceremonies. She compiled a 4.77 grade-point average in Pasco's prestigious Cambridge Education Program and finished as the school's valedictorian.
But her pride went much further.
As part of the Gold Award program, the highest accomplishment in Girl Scouting, Simonelli developed an academic catch-up program: "Getting Back on Track with Math Tutoring.'' It allowed other students to pass their state-required Algebra I end-of-course test and graduate on time.
"It meant a lot knowing that what we did in the tutoring helped make a difference for other kids,'' Simonelli said during the ceremony at the Nielsen Research Center headquarters.
Simonelli was among 33 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 1 million Girl Scouts nationwide have earned the Gold Award since its 1916 inception.
Simonelli, a Girl Scout since first grade, wanted to pursue a Gold Award, but couldn't find a good idea.
Last year, she was selected as a Junior Marshal to help with Pasco's senior activities and pre-graduation plans. The graduation class seemed smaller than expected, and she inquired about it. That's when she learned that several students fell short on their algebra I test, making them ineligible to graduate.
"Megan has always had a passion for helping others,'' said her mother, Christine. "She couldn't get over the disparity in the graduation numbers. Sometimes, it's hard to find that passion. But this fell right into her lap. She loved doing this — and it showed.''
Simonelli, who recruited friends to help with tutoring, implemented study sessions for after school, during homeroom and at adult-education night school.
"It was a little hard getting people to stay after school, whether it was lack of transportation or just motivation to do it,'' Simonelli said. "Homeroom was perfect. It's a 20-minute session right before lunch. It was a great time for tutoring and studying.
"The whole thing was life-changing for me. A lot of kids were really bright and smart, but for whatever reason, they fell behind and needed some help. Seeing them grasp the concepts and get their work done, it just made my heart swell. To know that some of them were able to graduate along with me and the rest of our class, it meant a lot.''
Simonelli, who will attend the University of Florida, said she wants her program to continue. She has planned "Tutoring Wednesdays'' for next school year during Pasco's homeroom periods.
"Sometimes, the teacher might be going too fast or the student may not apply themselves,'' Simonelli said. "But it showed me they can do the work with some effort. Math has always been one of my favorite subjects — I like the fact that there's only one right answer — and I was happy to see others pick up on it and find success.''
Simonelli, who received the Ann Hensler Scholarship as part of her Gold Award, is planning a biology major. She'd like to enter pharmacy school, with the ultimate goal of researching drug development, vaccinations and cancer medications.
As part of her 600-plus hours in community service, Simonelli has volunteered at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center.
"Cancer treatment has become really important to me,'' Simonelli said. "I thought once about becoming a teacher — and I guess my interest in tutoring would lend itself to that — but I've been really passionate about helping cancer patients since working at Moffitt.''
Other Gold Award recipients from Pasco County included:
• Alexis Beital (Zephyrhills) for "Sticks and Stones,'' which helped girls who have experienced bullying, dating violence and mental health issues. Beital, who will study crime scene technology at Keiser University, developed a website, gave presentations and distributed resource packets.
• Samantha Crist (Zephyrhills) for "Literacy for Littles,'' which promoted reading and literacy awareness. Crist, who will study psychology at Pasco-Hernando State College, distributed flyers and developed a pillow with built-in pockets to store technology devices while they were reading.
• Hannah Sullivan (Zephyrhills) for "Lifting 10 High,'' which helped kids learn better communication skills and connect through shared team-bonding experiences. Sullivan, who will seek a nursing career, created a booklet filled with games and rebuilt an obstacle at Warren Willis Camp to promote teamwork.
• Zoria Telfare (Wiregrass Ranch) for "Healthy Eating for High School Athletes,'' which provided healthy food options for school concession stands to discourage unhealthy snacks from vending machines or fast-food restaurants. Telfare attends the University of Miami and majors in exercise physiology.