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.PlayCourtesy Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council
WATCH Special-Needs Girl Scouts Seek Future

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."

Girl Scouts With Mental Disabilities Need New Leader

In the early years of Troop 21 the girls would sell cookies and Sewell would take them on camping trips. They would arrange their sleeping bags on the floor in the conference rooms at camp Agnes Arnold in Conroe, Texas. The camping was difficult to coordinate, however, so their last trip happened about two decades ago.

But the "girls," as Sewell calls them, have other activities to keep them busy, such as earning badges.

"We have adjusted badge requirements because of their limited abilities," she explained.

Some of the troop members wear Girl Scout vests where they proudly display their badges, but many of the members can't afford to buy uniforms.

This year they earned badges for making jewelry. On Valentine's Day they made a pendant that said "I Love You" and on Easter they made a necklace. Last year they earned a cooking badge for making a Halloween treat with instant pudding, cookie crumbs and gummi worms.

Now that Sewell is retiring, Fenninger will keep searching for a new leader to guide Troop 21, and although they've gotten calls from a few interested people, the search won't be easy.

Sewell says even though she can't continue to help with paperwork and accounting she is still "willing to go over there and help whoever it is that works with them."

"There is a sign in a display case of their memorabilia that says 'Troop 21 1976 to -- '" Fenninger said. "We don't want to fill in an end date."

If you are interested in volunteering to lead Troop 21, please contact the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council at 713-292-0300.