Children's Health Services researcher teaches Girl Scouts how to advocate for vulnerable populations
Laura Gates Apr 18, 2023
The eighth-graders from Fishers, Indiana, never thought they would be testifying as advocates for legislation benefitting foster families. As nervous as they were, the girls were prepared.
“We’ve done the research, and we have factual evidence to back us up,” Link said.
The story of how Girl Scout Troop 1937 managed to get free access to Indiana state parks for Indiana’s foster families traces back to the support and guidance of their troop leader. Cynthia Holladay, MPA, is a clinical research coordinator for Children’s Health Services Research in the Department of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.
“It’s been amazing to watch my girls grow,” Holladay said. “I tell them their voices are important. If you have good ideas, you have to tell people.”
It can’t be mere pontification. Holladay knows good ideas need to be backed by solid research.
“On my research team, everyone brings different expertise to the table, and that’s what makes a project successful,” said Holladay, who holds a master’s in public affairs from the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and is the clinical research coordinator for a multisite, federally-funded clinical trial in pediatric oncology.
Her job involves participant recruitment, data collection and the ability to manage a complex project. It’s those skills—passed on to her Girl Scouts—that fueled their success. Their push for free state parks access was added to Senate Bill 151, which contains several provisions for foster children and families including improved access to automobile insurance.
The bill, authored by senators Kyle Walker, Jon Ford and Travis Holdman, passed in both the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives and was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb with an effective date of July 1, 2023.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of a Girl Scout Troop or other youth group working on legislation from start to finish,” said Walker, who represents District 31. “They developed the idea, researched the topic, approached me to work with them on legislation, and testified in multiple committee hearings. Their initiative and persistence have been remarkable.
“While the girls have done all the work, Cynthia has encouraged and guided them throughout the entire process,” Walker added. “She has driven the girls to and from the statehouse several times and cheered them on as they testified in multiple committee meetings—sometimes waiting hours for their opportunity to speak.”
Holladay’s excellent leadership was no surprise to her supervisor, Cathy Luthman, director and clinical research leader for the Pediatric Research Network (PResNet), which actively engages practitioners in health research.
“Cindy came to IU School of Medicine with the training and skills needed to collect data and coordinate clinical trials, as well as public policy skills to help effect change,” Luthman said. “She used this knowledge to help the Girl Scout troop understand that a mixed methods approach of using both qualitative and quantitative data can provide a richer data set to understand a research question. It also was a wonderful way for the Girl Scouts to interact with the population they were trying to help so that they could understand the perspective of the foster parents better.”
Fighting for Foster Families
The girls of Troop 1937, also including Katie Bergman, were required to put in 50 hours on a project with lasting impact to their community in order to earn their Silver Award, the highest honor for Girl Scout Cadettes. They stopped counting hours weeks ago.
And they’re still going.
Although they’ve achieved state parks access, they also want foster families to enjoy Indiana museums free of charge. They are working with Conner Prairie and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in an effort supported by Indiana Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn, who sponsored SB 151 in the House.
“The state museum access will be a focal point for the next legislative year,” said Wilburn, DHSc, also an occupational therapist and assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Sciences at IUPUI. “I hope to include a few more aspects of social inclusion in collaboration with Troop 1937. We know that when vulnerable children, like the children in foster care, are presented with more opportunities to increase protective factors, they will have better physical and mental health outcomes.”
The girls’ advocacy for foster families stems from their volunteerism at a local nonprofit called Turn Away No Longer (TANL), where they helped clean donated toys and clothing. During their time volunteering, the organization was conducting a fundraiser so the foster families they serve could enjoy an outing at a local state park.
The Girl Scouts thought these families should be able to take their foster children to the park whenever they wanted—for free. They needed to find out if that was something foster parents would value.
Using a list provided by TANL, they surveyed 41 foster families on their use of state parks. They found that just 20 percent take their foster kids to state parks frequently, but if the entry fee barrier were removed, 80 percent said they would visit frequently. State park access is $7 per in-state vehicle for daily entry or $50 for an annual pass.
“One way to deal with trauma is play, and state parks are a great way to get the children to socialize,” said Link. “The problem is they can get overstimulated, so they might only be able to stay for 30 minutes to an hour, and it just wasn’t worth it to them.”
Armed with their research, the scouts approached Walker, who agreed to meet with them and then invited them to give a presentation on the floor of the Indiana Senate in July 2022. The girls would go on to meet with other government leaders including Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness, Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives Todd Huston and Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch. Their efforts were supported by many leaders including Danielle Shockey, CEO of Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, and Maggie Stevens, president and CEO of the nonprofit Foster Success.
Shockey connected them with the Girl Scouts’ Indianapolis public relations firm, Sease, Gerig & Associates, for training in media interviews, while Stevens connected them with a lobbyist from The Corydon Group to explain the complexities of the legislative process.
“It has been wonderful to see this group of young women identify a need in our community, conduct research to better understand that situation, and thoughtfully work with community leaders and partners to identify solutions and move them forward,” Stevens said. “In addition to providing a valuable resource for foster families and youth, I am hopeful that moving this work forward over the past year has provided a value experience for the members of Girl Scout Troop 1937 and an opportunity for them to see the impact that they can have in our state.”
Girl Scouts: ‘More than cookies’
The girls owe much to their mentor. Holladay recognized the strengths in each girl and encouraged them to move out of their comfort zones to use those strengths for meaningful change.
“She has a passion for effecting change in influencing policy and getting the girls involved early in being civic-minded with science and community engagement, especially for populations that are vulnerable,” Luthman observed. “Cindy’s volunteerism and leadership work make her an excellent role model, not only for Girl Scouts but also for faculty and staff at IU.”
The work of Troop 1937 will be featured in a traveling exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution called “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” which is coming to Minnetrista Museum in Muncie, Indiana, in June.
Holladay is proud of the way her girls have worked as a team and is elated to see their advocacy rewarded with passage of a bill that will have lasting impact for Indiana’s foster families.
As for her Girl Scouts, they no longer shake at the thought of speaking to influential leaders.
“I hope other girls see they can make a difference with their voice even if they’re scared to use it,” said Kenworthy.