From the time she was tiny, Leah Benjamin had her eye on the prize—to become a Gold Award Girl Scout. The Gold Award is the highest and most prestigious award in Girl Scouting, and it is awarded to fewer than six percent of Girl Scouts nationally. Girl Scouts earn it by spending one to two years working on a project that will help fix a problem in their community or make a lasting change in their world.
Leah’s mother, Sarah, is her Girl Scout troop leader, so she wasn’t surprised to hear about her daughter’s ambitions. She always assumed Leah’s Gold Award project would have something to do with pets or swimming, since Leah, who is a sophomore at Dakota Ridge High School, is a competitive swimmer. That’s why Sarah was taken aback when her daughter walked into the room in the winter of 2021 and announced, “I know what I am going to do for my project. We need to change that room in our temple back to what it once was—the youth group room.”
“My first reaction was, ‘What?’” Sarah says, with a laugh. “Then I realized what she planned to do, and I thought, “Oh my, that is amazing. It told me I was doing my job as a parent because I had instilled the beauty of Judaism in my children.”
Leah’s decision meant she (and her family) would need to invest quite a bit of time and sweat equity into the building where their small congregation, B’nai Chaim, meets in Morrison. But the results have been well worth it because now the teens in the congregation have a place to gather.
“I wanted it to be a safe place to be a teen and take a break from everything,” Leah says. “It’s a mental health space that decreases stress and makes you feel better.”
A room without an identity
The room Leah had in mind had once been a place for youth to gather at B’nai Chaim. But over time, it had become a storage room, the place to put anything that had no other place to go. It was filled with bins of dusty decorations, random school supplies, shelves of musty books, and discarded furniture—a white board, couch, and file cabinet.
“The room had lost its identity,” says Leah. “Our youth group was once very active, but everyone had grown up, and then after the coronavirus hit and no one was in the synagogue, it became an abandoned room.”
Making the decision to renovate the room for the Gold Award was just the first of many steps Leah would have to take. She spent months creating a proposal and preparing to present it to the Gold Award Committee. It was approved on the spot, which does not always happen.
“The Girl Scouts loved what I was doing,” Leah says. “They suggested that I also incorporate some programming and plan some events for kids.”
Leah’s rabbi was also excited about the project. But all that enthusiasm couldn’t offset the harsh reality when Leah first opened the door and looked inside the room.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be a lot,’” she recalls.
Starting in spring of 2021, Leah, with the help of her family, got down to business, vacuuming and cleaning a decade’s worth of dirt out of the room. They repainted it, covering the original light yellow (“Ugly, at least in my opinion,” says Leah.) with a calming blue and grey. She painted one wall with chalk paint, so that kids would have a place to draw on the wall.
The Gold Award rules stipulate that Leah could not ask for donations to help with her project or to furnish the newly painted empty room. She spent $1,000 of her own savings to buy paint, supplies, and furniture. The savings came from her many years of selling Girl Scout cookies—no surprise that she is an ace salesperson, topping 1,500 boxes in her best-selling year.
She bought and hauled in a rug, a futon, bean bag chairs, and a coffee table, along with games for teens to play. By the end of Summer 2021, the room was nearing completion. As she finished setting up the coffee table, Leah picked up the packaging and looked back at what she had accomplished.
“I thought, ‘I did this. We finally did this,’” she says. “All the work that my family and I did paid off. It was special, and it felt important.”
Children of Life
Congregation B’nai Chaim has 67 members, including 12 teens; “B’nai Chaim” means “Children of Life.” When Leah spread the word about the new youth room and then started planning events, everyone was thrilled. They thanked and congratulated her. Teens gathered for a game night with pizza. They painted pictures at a “Canvas and OJ” event. They ran the games at Purim Carnival, and Leah led a hat, coat, and glove drive for Coats for Colorado. Her goal had been fulfilled—youth at her congregation had a place to gather where there were no expectations for achievement, no competition, and no grades.
“I like have a place for teens to be Jewish together,” Leah says. “It makes a difference.”
Leah has a few final steps before she qualifies to become one of only about 15 young women in Colorado to receive the Girl Scout Gold Award this year. First, she will create a handbook on how to run a youth group, to make sure what she has started will be sustained after she grows older. She has to meet with the Gold Award committee for a final presentation and questions. Ask her what she has learned from this project, and she responds with a list.
“I now know how to paint and put furniture together!” she says. “I have also improved my ability to do interviews and presentations, I learned how to plan events, and I am just a more confident person.”
When Leah graduates from high school, she will be eligible to wear Girl Scout Gold Award honors. But the real legacy of her project will be space and activities for future teens at B’nai Chaim, the next generation of “Children of Life.” And that thought makes her mother very proud.
“It was such a mitzvah,” Sarah says. “But it wasn’t just that she was doing this for her community. My child did this on her own, with her physical labor, her money. She could have done anything, and this is what she chose to do.”