Left, Caroline and her Gold Award project: a municipal solar pollinator garden. Right, Caroline with the Girl Scout logo.
Left, Caroline and her Gold Award project: a municipal solar pollinator garden. Right, Caroline with the Girl Scout logo.

Caroline McGraw has gone for gold.

The 17-year-old parishioner of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Schenectady has been named a National Gold Award Girl Scout (formally known as National Young Woman of Distinction), the highest honor given in Girl Scouting.

For her project, the teen organized and implemented the first municipal solar pollinator garden in New York State.

Caroline told The Evangelist that, when Girl Scouts called to congratulate her, she assumed something was wrong with her application.

“Then they told me, ‘You won the National Young Woman of Distinction,’” she said. “I couldn’t process it.”

Caroline is the first person from the Albany Diocese and the Capital District area to win the prestigious award.

Ten in country

“I was so shocked,” said her mother, Denise. “She was crying; I was crying. I believe her journey in this was blessed because of the odds of it” happening.

The Gold Award recognizes Girl Scouts in grades nine through 12 who complete service projects that demonstrate extraordinary leadership and take action to make a difference in their community.

From this elite pool, only 10 Girl Scouts are selected out of thousands of applications for the National Gold Award. Caroline’s Gold Award project was nominated for the national award by the Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York.

Caroline joined Girl Scout Troop 2383 when she was a kindergartener at St. Helen’s School in Schenectady (now St. Kateri Tekakwitha School). Being in Girl Scouts “has made a big impact on my life,” she said. “It really gave me a voice.”

Pollination project

For her Gold Award project, Caroline focused on food insecurity, sustainability and the promotion of pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) that are crucial to local ecosystems.

The idea for the project came from a trip with her Girl Scout troop to a local dump site.

In 2016, Caroline began work on her solar pollinator garden. The pollinator garden contains plants and flowers native to Niskayuna, and will promote pollination in the area.

“It’s a real benefit to bring pollinators back to the environment,” said the teen. “Being the first [garden of this kind] in New York State, it can benefit not just the town.”

Caroline also advocated for $300,000 in the New York State budget to be advocated for pollinator research, and pushed for passage of legislation in the State Senate and Assembly that would create guidelines for “vegetation management” — mowing, pesticide use and so on — for corporations and people claiming to provide pollinator protection.

Looking back on the work she did, Caroline remarked that she didn’t know “how it ended up spiraling so much.”

However, she takes pride in her project: “I definitely think this is a very important issue that should be addressed more across our country. We need to start doing more.”

The teen noted that the garden is a “continuous project” and that Girl Scouts in younger troops, many of whom helped to plant the pollinator garden, will continue her work.

Now in college

As part of the award, Caroline received more than $20,000 in college scholarships. She graduated from Niskayuna High School in June and is now a freshman at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., studying political science. She’s also on CUA’s swim team.

Caroline received her National Gold Award pin at a ceremony in New York City. All 10 national winners attended the ceremony and spoke about their projects on a panel at the United Nations.

“I didn’t realize how big of a difference [my project] made until I went to the Gold Award ceremony” and realized, “‘Oh, I’m one of these girls!’” she said.

The teen also appeared on “The Today Show” for the celebration of the International Day of the Girl. The main speaker for the day was former first lady Michelle Obama.

“I was so excited. I wished more people could get to go,” Caroline recalled.

In addition to Girl Scouts, Caroline is also an altar server and eucharistic minister at St. Kateri.

“All the attributes that had her win the National Gold Award, we saw in her service at the church,” said her pastor, Rev. Robert Longobucco. “She’s a great kid.”