When packing for a trip abroad, most fill their suitcases with the necessities, such as shoes, clothes and extra underwear.
Last summer, 16-year-old Alexa Nutt and her mom, Kelly Lynn Stanton-Nutt, packed 200 pounds of books and school supplies into four suitcases for their four-week service trip to Tanzania.
Nutt collected and delivered the supplies, as part of her project to earn the Girl Scout Gold Award, the organization’s highest honor that can make girls eligible for college scholarships, among other recognition.
When the Northfield High School junior started the award process more than a year ago, which involves a committee-approved plan and at least 80 hours of work, she knew she wanted her project to have a global reach. And, she wanted to do something in Africa.
Nutt said she took on local and national projects for her previous awards.
“I wanted to expand it even bigger for my Gold Award,” Nutt said. “Africa has always been an interest for me. There’s a lot of need and a lot of poverty, so it seemed like a good place to take a service project.”
Stanton-Nutt, a teacher at St. Dominic School in Northfield, said that the packet her daughter filled out to plan for the project asked, “How do you want to change the world?”
“Alexa really took that to heart,” she said. “Then, it became, ‘How can we make this happen?’ And it started coming together in an amazing way.”
With some research, Nutt found New Zealand-based International Volunteer HQ, an organization that set her up with the Tanzanian school.
She then started collecting donations at Northfield elementary schools and made presentations to the students and to members of her church on what Tanzanian life is like.
One difference that Nutt got to see first-hand, is how the country’s teachers tend to approach lessons.
They copy lessons directly from a textbook onto the classroom board, Nutt said. Then, the students write them into their notebooks.
“It was a really positive experience for them to see how we could come in there and teach through art and teach through song and teach language and math and science,” Stanton-Nutt said.
For three weeks in summer 2012, she planned and led English, math, science and art lessons for pre-school through seventh grade-level students.
To get to the school everyday, Nutt said she and her mom piled onto a 15-passenger public bus with at least 20 others.
“People would be carrying produce, and livestock would be on the dala dala squished with you,” Nutt said.
It cost the equivalent of 15 cents to ride, she said.
They would start at whichever classroom that the headmaster directed them to. At about 10 a.m., they took a break.
The kids ate what Nutt said was similar to “watered-down Malt-O-Meal” porridge. Then, the students ran around a dilapidated playground with swings and a seesaw.
Nutt said that most students had never listened to a storybook being read to them, a concept she introduced to them using the donated picture and chapter books.
“She was really working hard to make sure we would have the most successful day for those kids while we were there,” Stanton-Nutt said. “You could see how they lit up when we came in.”
“Usually we ended the day with some older kids so we could do some more complex art projects,” Nutt said.
Then, they would head home where they and 10 other volunteers lived with a host family, including “Mama Liz” and three of her nieces and nephews, Nutt said.
Another focus for Nutt was to have a lasting impact on the teachers and students.
To help the school keep track of the donated books, Nutt said that she helped implement a simple check-out system to maintain a library.
Plus, Stanton-Nutt said her daughter passed on her binder of lessons to other volunteers who came after them.
“It’s exciting that she created something that’s going to continue,” Stanton-Nutt said.
Nutt is now wrapping up the second part of her Gold Award project.
“We continued to collect books and school supplies, a process that [the seventh-graders at St. Dominic School] helped with,” Nutt said. “They really advertised [our] program that encouraged people to donate even small sums of money — $1, $5 — which we could use to send books to the school we were in.”
She said she shipped eight boxes of donations and will soon send the remainder, one of the final steps before her Gold Award presentation.
The Gold Award is an amazing honor that’s often about producing a project that spreads, according to Liz Cooney, a membership specialist of the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys.
“It’s sustainable and it’s really making a larger impact on the community and the world around us,” Cooney said. “With Alexa designing the curriculum and the ongoing support that she’s given, as well as educating our local community, that’s going to have a ripple effect.”
Nutt’s project keeps opening doors, as word spreads in the community, Stanton-Nutt said.
She said that they have acted as sort of liaisons and teachers on what others could do to make an impact in Africa.
For example, the family’s church had them speak on the challenges of avoiding malaria, when the congregation was working on getting mosquito nets to those in need in several African countries, including Tanzania.
Stanton-Nutt has been the leader of Nutt’s Girl Scout troop since the girls were in first grade.
Now that they are juniors in high school, she’s seeing many of them work toward the Gold Award, a confidence- and skill-building experience she said will help catapult them into college.
“It was great to have a month alone with my daughter,” she said. “To watch her grow up in front of my eyes, it was amazing to see how she took on each challenge.”