LAFAYETTE -- Girl Scout Troop 31883 members Dana Katz and Carolyn Cole have earned their Gold Awards, the Girl Scouts' highest honor, under the guidance of troop leader Mary Ilyin.

Both girls are seniors at Acalanes High School in Lafayette.

Katz worked with Mari Parino at the Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center, a nonprofit organization that provides horseback riding lessons and camps to children with mental and physical disabilities. She planned, designed and rebuilt a sensory trail by mid-August 2011, in time for the grand opening of the center's new arena and facility.

Katz organized the tack room, made and installed dressage letters in the new covered arena and created a hand-drawn flip book, based upon suggestions by autism expert Nicky Thompson, to help handicapped children learn horse safety, care, and riding, as well as allow autistic children to communicate with staff more easily. Katz interviewed therapeutic trainers to determine the effectiveness of the flip books, sensory trail, and tack room after being used for a year.

"The modifications and improvements actually made a difference to how the facility is run. The disabled children can ride through the sensory trail in a safe manner, improving their self esteem, motor skills, and mental abilities," says Katz. "The staff benefited from an organized and labeled tack room. Dressage letters allow the children to follow the instructor's directions easily and the flip books help children visualize what they need to do to ride a horse.


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"I love working with horses and seeing how they interact with children. I hope to continue teaching children how to ride."

Cole worked with Diablo Valley Montessori School Director Suzette Smith to plan the location, size, and scope of a children's sustainable garden. As preschoolers plant, they will be aware of where their food comes from and learn about healthy eating.

Home Depot gave Cole discounts on two build-your-own-garden box sets, piping, and irrigation supplies for her project. Four volunteers helped her construct the boxes and install the irrigation system in the summer of 2011.

"In January, I taught the kids to pre-plant and they had many questions about the process," says Cole. "Teaching preschoolers is unlike teaching adults. To achieve the same understanding, the topic must be approached by simplifying explanations without taking away from the overall knowledge given. I talked about the importance of healthy eating and what organic foods are then helped them plant seeds in small paper cups. A few weeks later I came back with volunteers and transplanted their growing fruits and vegetables into the garden boxes."

Cole gave the preschoolers a healthy eating program and 150 illustrated, recipe pamphlets she designed, incorporating foods from the garden.

"My project impressed upon children the importance of eating healthy," says Cole. "They can watch their plants sprout and grow; an amazing experience. These children will grow up with happy memories of gardening. Perhaps this will encourage them to plant gardens of their own at home."