Fewer than six percent of eligible Girl Scouts successfully earn the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement a scout can complete. The 80-hour service project requires high school scouts to complete a “long-term project with sustainable and ongoing impact that addresses a root cause of an issue.” One scout who is determined to be part of this six percent is rising OPRF senior Emma Costello-Wollwage.

As part of her project, “Prioritizing Inclusion,” Costello-Wollwage compiled a comprehensive guide to sex education for middle schoolers. Her website (sites.google.com/view/prioritizinginclusion) offers information on LGBTQ+ issues and history, as well as her “amended lesson plan regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion for sexual education programs in middle schools.” Accompanying her website is an Instagram account, @prioritizinginclusion.

In creating the website and Instagram page, Costello-Wollwage met with middle school students and spent hours researching and writing for the website.

“As a queer student, I was never taught how to protect myself sexually whilst in a sexual relationship with another non man,” writes Costello-Wollwage on the website. “Since I came out/discovered my queer identity in the sixth grade, I was only taught straight sex and viewed a single five-minute video regarding LGBTQ+ sex in my sex ed classroom. This was not enough.”

Lee Chaloemtiarana, Costello-Wollwage’s partner, witnessed similar problems in health class. “We didn’t know how to navigate a queer relationship,” said Chaloemtiarana. “It went by different rules than heterosexual relationships — and that’s all we learned about in health class. We didn’t know how to be safe (or) how to maintain a healthy relationship.” 

According to Chaloemtiarana, the sex education they received in middle school barely covered LGBTQ+ issues, “which is really ironic considering middle school is a time where a lot of people find out about being gay (and begin that) self-exploration journey.”

Witnessing this imbalance in education, along with peers’ ignorance and hatred toward members of the LGBTQ+ community and in particular toward transgender people,  Costello-Wollwage grew more aware of her privilege as well as her duty to fight for herself and others within the community. “We are the ones who have to make changes,” she said.

After coming out in sixth grade, Costello-Wollwage said her sexuality became an important part of her identity. “I was really happy that I had taken the time and found something that special,” she said. Over the next few years, she participated in Percy Julian Middle School’s Rainbow Tribe and was “very, very out.” 

While researching the project, Costello-Wollwage went back to Rainbow Tribe to speak with current middle school students. Incoming OPRF freshman Shay Sokolowski, who participated in Rainbow Tribe, described Costello-Wollwage as being “highly relatable.” Similarly, Costello-Wollwage said she could see herself in the Rainbow Tribe students. 

The students she spoke to in Rainbow Tribe were “so, so out,” said Costello-Wollwage. “They’re under the impression that OPRF and Oak Park are going to be as accepting as their peers, their friends, and their teachers. But that’s just not true.” 

During her (virtual) freshman year at OPRF, Costello-Wollwage experienced cyberbullying directed at her sexuality. “We all have prejudice embedded in us,” said Costello-Wollwage. “It’s our responsibility to reteach ourselves.”

Costello-Wollwage successfully completed all 80 hours of service. As she waits for the Girl Scout council to approve her project, she said she hopes the website reaches a broader audience. “I’m hoping it can become a really accessible education tool.”

While researching and compiling the website, Costello-Wollwage said she was able to expand her knowledge on these issues. “I learned a lot during that process,” she said. “It was really enjoyable for me because I got to learn about stuff that I missed out on. Creating that website, everything’s going to stick with me. … I really liked learning about my community and helping other kids. It means a lot to me.”