Fourteen-year-old Sydney Whalen taught kids from abusive relationships the importance of nutrition and how to make healthy meals.
When Sydney Whalen had to come up with a project for the Girl Scouts, she knew she wanted to work with kids; she just wasn’t exactly sure what she was going to do with them at first.
“I really wanted to do something with kids because I connect well with them,” she said. “I realized I could incorporate nutrition because it’s really important, and they weren’t exposed because of where they were. They didn’t really know what was healthy and what wasn’t, so I decided to teach them about nutrition.”
Whalen earned the Silver Award in Girl Scouts, the second highest achievement in Girl Scouting. She will be honored at a ceremony in May.
A Girl Scout since the age of 5, Whalen decided to teach kids at the YWCA Women’s Domestic Violence Shelter in Elizabeth the importance of nutrition. Those kids have been in an abusive environment most of their life, and this shelter protects them and their mothers.
She planted herbs and vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers and carrots in a garden she created. She read them books on nutrition and created bookmarks and built a puppet theater by hand where the kids could act out skits with fruit and vegetable finger puppets. She also brought in foods to cook in the kitchen so the kids and their mothers could learn how to make healthy meals.
Whalen said she knew she would be teaching them a lot, but didn’t realize how little they knew coming into this.
“They didn’t know anything,” she said. “They have very tough lives, come from tough homes and didn’t have a good life.”
There was a language barrier with some of the kids, but Whalen said they were excited to learn, which surprised her given the situation they were in.
“I thought they were going to be a lot more sad, but they were very happy,” she said. “They would always point to pictures in books and asked what they meant and were so excited about everything.”
“One (mother) was so happy about it. She was very grateful and encouraging about how I was reading to her daughter. She didn’t get read to a lot because she was in an abusive environment. With another mother, she didn’t speak English, but another lady translated, and I believe she said ‘thank you.’ Her boys looked forward to us coming, and they would stand at the door waiting for us.”
Even though Whalen was teaching them, she says they taught her compassion and helped her decide what she wants to do when she grows up.
“I think I just felt a lot more empathy toward people that have been abused and in tough situations,” she said. “It really helped me decide what I want to do when I grow up. I want to do something with kids, maybe something with abused kids.”
Whalen’s mother, Suzanne, who made the two-hour drive with Sydney two to three days a week to the women’s shelter, could not be more proud of her.
“Her dedication to community service and helping others, plus all her schoolwork with honors classes at Paul VI and cheerleading, she’s well rounded,” Suzanne said. “She’s a wonderful example and role model to younger Girl Scouts and to children in general for her dedication and commitment to helping others.”
“It’s a lot of work, but you feel like you make a difference and it’s worth it,” Whalen said.