For her Eagle project, she wrote a book aimed at building empathy

Photo by Theo Van Straten

During this protracted pandemic, we’ve all spent a lot of time staring at screens instead of interacting with others. It’s a necessary evil that concerns Ava Van Straten — and not just because she loves spending time outside with friends.

This Lone Scout from De Pere, Wis. (Bay-Lakes Council), is worried about the effects of all these screens on the development of empathy in children.

When children interact together, face to face, they learn how to recognize feelings in others and share what’s inside their own heads. But when they can’t be together, they can’t practice this skill.

“We learn empathy from interacting with each other, particularly through eye contact,” Ava says. “That’s reduced when we communicate through screens — or we don’t communicate with each other because our eyes are on our own screens.”

So we’ve identified the problem, but Scouts don’t stop there. They get to work finding solutions.

For her Eagle Scout service project, Ava led a team of 25 volunteers as they designed, created and distributed a book and curriculum that teaches empathy to first to fourth grade students. Ava has made both the curriculum and book, called Parker’s Path, available for free online.

“By writing a book with a timeless theme and message and working with educators to create a curriculum to promote empathy, we can get this important message out,” Ava says. “By providing it for free, it allows schools to add it to their social and emotional learning curriculum” even if their budget might not otherwise have room for such content.

Ava, who became part of the Inaugural Class of Female Eagle Scouts this week, told Bryan on Scouting her story.

Ava Van Straten at the book publisher, Worzalla. (Photo by Randy Van Straten)

Led by one, written by many

From concept to first draft, writing a book is often a solitary endeavor.

But Ava’s book was a team effort from the beginning. Yes, she needed to lead a team through the project if she wanted this book to be part of her Eagle project. But more importantly, she knew that working with experts would make the book better.

Over dozens of drafts and sample storylines, Ava consulted reading specialists, teachers and publishers. She wanted to make sure the book was neither too easy nor too difficult for the intended audience and that it had lessons that could be paired with the text.

When the final numbers were tallied, Ava had led 25 volunteers through a combined 300 hours of work. These included Scouts and classmates who helped create the curriculum, craft social media content, edit videos and do the laborious work of moving, sorting and delivering the actual books. It also included adults like the illustrator, graphic designer, teachers, editors, printer and publisher.

Ava’s goal was to distribute 1,000 books (with the accompanying curriculum), but her fundraising was such a hit that she was able to quadruple that number.

Through grants and donations, she raised $11,000 — enough for 4,000 books distributed in Wisconsin and five other states.

“That’s potentially 110 school districts, 400 schools and 75,000 first to fourth grade students,” Ava says.

Ava at her brother’s Scout camp in 2016. (Photo by Randy Van Straten)

Looking back on her Scouting career

Ava can pinpoint the exact moment when she knew Scouting was the right fit for her. As it turns out, it was three years before she was able to join Scouts BSA herself.

It was 2016, and Ava was visiting her brother at Bear Paw Scout Camp, nestled in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest of northern Wisconsin.

“I loved seeing all of the skills they learned through camping, emergency preparedness, various merit badges and more,” she says. “Growing up with that influence further solidified my decision to join.”

She joined as a Lone Scout and got to work earning merit badges, completing the required camping nights and progressing through the ranks toward Eagle. Like other Eagle Scout hopefuls before her, Ava didn’t rush — but she did have a deadline: her 18th birthday.

Ava was not yet 16 when Scouts BSA opened its doors to girls in February 2019. Because of that, she was not eligible for the one-time temporary transition rules that gave extra time to Scouts who were over 16 but not yet 18 on Feb. 1, 2019.

That means she had just over two years to complete her requirements — in addition to playing tennis, piano and clarinet and being a member of the chess club and National Honor Society.

“Being an Eagle Scout represents hard work, goal setting and accomplishing many tasks,” Ava says. “You do not earn an Eagle, you become an Eagle. It is intended for someone who wants to learn leadership and build their toolkit for life.”

Ava and her brothers at Scout camp. (Photo by Randy Van Straten)

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.