Courage, Diversity, and Breaking Barriers in Girl Scouts

Courage, Diversity, and Breaking Barriers in Girl Scouts

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Patricia Robledo is currently the Business Liaison in the Office of Business Support for the City of Knoxville. She was appointed to this position by Mayor Madeline Rogero in 2011. She has been a volunteer with the Girl Scout Council of Southern Appalachians since 2013.

When I “discovered” Lonsdale Elementary School in 2007, I fell in love with it and never left.

I was serving on a task force that was looking into allegations of racial disparity in school discipline in Knox County Schools, and part of the process involved interviewing area principals.

When the principal of Lonsdale described her school, with its diversity, cultural, and linguistic challenges and opportunities — I literally got goosebumps.

I immediately knew what my purpose on the task force was.

I’d volunteered over the years at Farragut schools in both of my children’s classrooms and field trips, but I’d been feeling the need to get involved elsewhere. I was looking for somewhere with a bigger need — somewhere my bilingualism would be put to good use.

Lonsdale was the answer.

It’s a mini-United Nations — a microcosm that reflects the overall community. The racial lines were very much divided along the white/black communities — but the brown community has changed this. In 2010, Lonsdale Elementary was 32 percent Hispanic, and by 2014 — it had jumped to 48 percent.

The community is made up of mostly native American-Amerindian-indigenous from Guatemala, so even the use of the term Hispanic is not totally accurate — it’s complex. A lot of residents and students speak a Mayan language — sometimes called a dialect. There are also Burundi refugees in the community, and those kids attend Lonsdale Elementary, too.

I started volunteering at Lonsdale on the first day of school in fall 2007, and the energy engulfed me as soon as I arrived. There were so many happy reunions and hugs, and I overheard so many exclamations of “I’ve missed you!” and “look how much you’ve grown!” Kids were happy to return to school, and the principal, teachers, and staff were welcoming and warm. I had never seen anything like it. I felt useful that day — and I was hooked.

I had my own business at the time and my schedule allowed me to volunteer during school hours. I worked closely with the school’s social worker, made phone calls, translated forms, interpreted meetings, visited homes, helped teachers in their classrooms — basically anything and everything.

This continued until 2011, when I had the honor of being appointed by Mayor Rogero to her administration. A new job and schedule meant my Lonsdale volunteering would shift to after-work hours, but I knew I wanted to remain engaged. Lonsdale had just become a community school, which meant extended school day hours, so I considered possibly starting a Girl Scout troop. My daughter had been a Girl Scout in the past, and I’d helped with her troop, but not as a leader.

My overall lack of experience in Girl Scouts made me nervous to take on a new troop, but with much assistance from Anna Dirl, a GSCSA staff member, and Sharon Field, a volunteer, the troop started in 2013! If not for Sharon and Anna holding my hand that first year, it would have been difficult. I basically struck gold with those two!

My girls are ethnically diverse — a rainbow coalition — and most of them are of Guatemalan descent.

We just welcomed a new girl into our troop who recently emigrated from Guatemala and speaks Acateco, a Mayan language. I’m a native of Colombia and a Spanish speaker, so I was not much help to her.

On her first day, we were doing a finger weaving project. Some of the other Girl Scouts happened to speak Acateco — as well as Spanish and English — and were able to give her instructions for the project in her native language. It happened smoothly and naturally and was a beautiful thing to watch.

I admire my girls more than words can express.

In this moment of bonding, I asked these little polyglots:


Do you realize how amazing you are?

Do you realize how amazing and unique it is to be trilingual in the US?

The looks on their faces told me they didn’t think their language skills made them particularly special, so I took the opportunity to try to counter the messages so often heard by immigrants. Messages which shame us for being proud of who we are, of our culture, and of our language. They needed to hear how special they are, and be proud of their roots.

These children have acquired amazing skills. They learn how to navigate different worlds, both culturally and linguistically. They take on leadership roles at home as they become liaisons, interpreters, and translators for their families.

I shared with them how important it is to keep those language skills. Too many of our kids eventually become monolingual, and I shared with them how being bilingual has given me so many opportunities. I hope they heard how proud I am to be a Latina.

Reinvention of self has been a theme in my life since I arrived in the U.S. at 17 years old, but I think it’s universal for all women — immigrants or not.

I’ve reinvented numerous times: I’ve been a medical technologist, an aerobics instructor, a stay-at-home mom, a linguist for the federal government, a judicial interpreter, a translator, a small business owner, a nonprofit executive director, a public servant, and voice over talent — among other things.

As reinvention takes place, the doubts of ability surface. I believe that if one is feeling too comfortable, personal growth is not taking place — and I prefer to have more humility than confidence. When I need to find the courage to reinvent, I look back at my trajectory and remind myself that I’ve acquired transferable skills in all I’ve done, and just try to do my best.

Too many of our kids eventually become monolingual, and I shared with them how being bilingual has given me so many opportunities. I hope they heard how proud I am to be a Latina.

Through Girl Scouts — girls build courage to take on any role they desire and rise to any task they’re faced with. They gain confidence through using their voices, and they grow in character alongside friends through shared experiences. They learn to make the world a better place through service and advocacy — including advocating for themselves. Our Girl Scout troop provides an emotionally safe environment that lets girls be themselves, and at the same time, exposes them to new ideas, concepts, and places.

Throughout my life, I’ve retained a deep desire to satisfy my volunteer spirit — a quality inherited from my parents. Community service has served a very important role in my life, and it has unexpectedly given me incredible opportunities. I know there is a sense of pride in the Lonsdale community about the existence of a Girl Scout troop at the school, and I am happy to be a part of it.

I cannot say enough about the support I’ve received not only from Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians, but also Lonsdale Elementary School staff, Project GRAD, Great School Partnership, and Boys and Girls Club.

I appreciate Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians for allowing me this opportunity to serve these amazing girls.

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