Girl Scout Troop for Mentally Disabled Seeks New Leader

PHOTO: Charlotte Sewell, who spent 35 years guiding a Girl Scout troop for the mentally disabled, is now retiring.
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Mona Cross has been a Girl Scout for 35 years.

The Houston woman is one of 11 mentally disabled women ranging in age from their mid-thirties to 61 who make up Troop 21, a rare Girl Scout troop where every member is developmentally challenged.

In many ways they're just like any other troop: they earn badges, go on field trips and make arts and crafts. Cross is especially proud of the camping trips she took with the other troop members, and the badge she earned last Halloween for cooking.

But now her troop's leader of 35 years is leaving and the group is in danger of being disbanded.

A search has begun to replace the woman who seems irreplaceable: 77-year-old Charlotte Sewell, a Troop 21 leader since 1976.

It's going to be a challenge.

"Oftentimes it becomes overwhelming when you take on a Girl Scout troop," not to mention one where all the girls have special needs, said Kathleen Fenninger, who is leading the search for Sewell's replacement.

Troop of Mentally Disabled Girl Scouts Needs New Leader

When Cross' mother died, Fenninger explained, Sewell was there for her. Now they need to find someone who will be just as dedicated or the troop could disappear.

Cross, who is 51, describes Sewell as "nice and loveable." She said when she found out Sewell was retiring she "was shocked." Although Cross knew Sewell was in bad health, she didn't expect her to leave this year.

The group is eager, however, to keep going.

After they heard the news Sunday, "They were asking as they walked out, 'Who's our leader?'" Fenninger said. They seemed puzzled when told a new leader hadn't been chosen.

They "kind of frowned, like, 'What do you mean you don't know?'" Fenninger said.

Rosemary Osime works with Cross every day at The Center, a residence hall in Houston for people with developmental disabilities where Cross has lived for 22 years. Like most of the women in Troop 21, Cross has the mental capacity of a 6 or 7 year old. Going to the monthly Girl Scout meetings is an important ritual.

"Oh my goodness it means a lot to them," Osime said. "They talk about it a lot."

After the meetings, Osime said, "They are always happy. They tell us what happened during the meeting, especially Mona. She's always happy to report back."

At the meetings the Pledge of Allegiance is always first on the agenda, followed by the Girl Scout promise, crafts and snacks.

"[They] tried so hard to be just like everybody else," said John Sewell, 84, whose daughter Cathy is one of the longest serving members of the troop.

John Sewell, who is Charlotte's husband, has attended all of the meetings for the past several years since his wife's health declined after her heart attack in 2006. She suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and hip problems requiring a walker. But despite her physical discomfort, Sewell has persevered.

"She just loves to help the girls," John Sewell said.

Charlotte Sewell said she inherited Troop 21 from her friend, Elizabeth Duvall, who originally organized the troop more than three decades ago. They led the girls together until Duvall died about four years ago, Sewell said.

"We originally said when she died we would give up the troop, but the girls wanted to continue so much," Sewell said. "So when she died, I took over."

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