Gainesville girl is National Young Woman of Distinction
Each year, the Girl Scouts select 10 National Young Women of Distinction. These girls are chosen from Girl Scouts who have earned their Gold Award, the highest achievement a Girl Scout can earn. The Gold Awards are given to women who have crafted a project where they transformed an idea for change into an actionable plan with measurable, sustainable and far-reaching impact at the local, national and global levels.
Only 5 percent of Girl Scouts earn their Gold Award, and the 10 Women of Distinction are then chosen from the elite peer group.
Gainesville resident Katie Rose Dionne earned her Gold Award for fighting hunger in Hall County through the creation of the “Sow More, Grow More” program, which encourages farmers and community members to donate fruits and vegetables to Community Food Bank. The program, which runs during the summer months when children are most vulnerable to hunger, was developed specifically to be easily adaptable to any community.
Dionne says she has received inquiries from people in other cities asking about how to implement her idea to help hungry kids in their neighborhoods.
Before she read her poetry to former poet laureates at the Library of Congress, before she received fan mail from President Barack Obama, before she fed more than 2,000 hungry kids and before the Georgia General Assembly issued a proclamation saying it was “confident that vast success is surely in this young woman’s future,” Katie Rose Dionne was a typical girl who sold cookies for her Girl Scout troop and liked to sing Taylor Swift songs.
In her 19 years on Earth, the North Hall High School graduate has compiled a resume that would make some Ph.D.s jealous.
She’s received the Congressional Gold Medal. She’s scored a full-ride scholarship to study in Beijing. She speaks Chinese. She racked up a 3.97 GPA in college classes while in high school. She’s earned admittance to the nationally top-ranked undergraduate international business program at the University of South Carolina that only accepts 14 students annually. And most recently, she’s been named a National Young Woman of Distinction, the highest honor available to Girl Scouts.
With credentials like these, it’d be easy to be cocky. But Dionne, the daughter of Nancy Sturtevant and Mike Dionne, is quick to divert attention from her award and focus on where it all started — the cafeteria.
THE BIG IDEA
The calendar showed it was Friday, and Dionne and her friend prepared for the weekend in different ways.
While Dionne imagined the things she could do with her free time, her classmate imagined two days without food.
“The cafeteria staff at my school set out a platter of sandwiches. I noticed (her) wrapping up six or seven,” Dionne said via email from Beijing. “I asked her what she was doing. She said she was taking them home so that she and her brother would have something to eat on Saturday.”
This simple statement shook Dionne. The Gainesville resident knew, of course, hunger was a concern for many Americans, but she didn’t realize it was a problem in her hometown.
“I thought our high school was fairly middle class,” she said. “So this motivated me to look closer at the issue of child hunger in Hall County.”
Dionne looked at the statistics and was surprised to learn 60 percent of Hall County students received free or reduced-priced meals at school. She ruminated on the subject some more, worrying about students who went weekends without adequate nutrition. And then it hit her: Weekends weren’t as big of a problem as breaks.
“I realized that these students would face a huge nutritional gap during the summer months when schools are closed,” Dionne said.
From there, she reached the conclusion that became her “aha” moment.
Summer happened at the same time “farmers (and) gardeners were planting their fields,” she said.
So she made a simple request.
“I asked them to sow more,” she said.
By sowing more, farmers can grow more, Dionne said. And if they grow more, they can feed more. Thus her “Sow More, Grow More” program came into being.
But now that she had a concept, she needed to devise a plan to implement it.
First, Dionne had to find farmers and gardeners willing to donate. Second, she had to find a way to identify students in need. Finally, she had to bridge the gap between the two.
So she got to work.
“I collaborated with community groups who advised me on everything from safe food handling hygiene to distribution logistics,” she said.
She reached out to the University of Georgia Extension Office in Gainesville. She reached out to Master Gardeners. She reached out to churches.
Once she got their input, she started her laborious task of creating church bulletins, fliers, posters and links on social media. Next, she gave presentations to community groups to solicit donations and volunteers.
Finally, her master plan came together.
On Sunday mornings during the growing season, farmers and gardeners would bring fresh produce to Gainesville’s First Baptist Church, which was centrally located and had commercial refrigeration capacity to keep the food fresh. Then, volunteers sorted through the food and transported it to a local food pantry in Gainesville for distribution to impoverished children and their families.
To date, Dionne’s efforts have put 1,500 pounds of fruits and vegetables on the plates of hungry children.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Dionne passes credit for the program’s success to her mentors and fellow community members, quoting German philosopher and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
“At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you,” she said.
She said this proved true in Hall County when she committed to her project.
“Whenever I explained my ‘Sow More, Grow More’ concept, I never got feedback such as ‘You can’t do that!’ or ‘What can a teenager do?’” she said. “Instead, I heard, ‘What can I do to help?’”
Only when pressed does she acknowledge her individual role, but even then, she ties her success back to her community.
“An idea usually starts with one person, and then that individual’s passion can energize an entire community,” she said. “(And) a community is stronger when everyone works together for the good, especially to help out those who are not in a position to help themselves, such as children.”
Dionne also attributed her success to the Girl Scouts, which she joined in middle school on a friend’s recommendation.
She said her involvement with Troop No. 10800 encouraged her and her troopmates to lead, learn and be involved.
“This is an organization that truly has something for everyone,” she said. “It’s a great way to make friends and develop your interests. (It) challenges girls to dream big and be a leader in the community. When they get results, this teaches girls that they can really make a difference and gives them confidence to take on even bigger challenges next time.”
Such was the progression of her success, she said. She started with smaller projects — like writing poetry, for example, which led to a national poetry award — and she grew them, one step at a time. So when she found herself in her high school’s cafeteria, watching a friend take extra sandwiches, she knew how to effect change.
“(The Girl Scouts and their projects helped me to learn) skills involved in problem solving — idea conception, planning and promotion — how to take an idea, such as ‘Sow More, Grow More’ and get it off the ground,” she said. “I also learned I can overcome challenges to achieve the goal (such as finding a source for commercial refrigeration). In terms of leadership, I learned the value of organization, clear communication, collaboration with community groups and training to help all volunteers fulfill their roles. I also learned when to be hands-on and when to delegate.”
REAPING THE REWARDS
Dionne’s mother points to her daughter’s work ethic as the true key to her successes.
“Katie is a very hard worker,” Sturtevant said. “And she’s a very humble person. When you see her string of accomplishments, people say, ‘Oh, you’re just so smart,’ or something like that, and she makes sure to explain that she sticks with things for a long time. She works hard. Anyone could do what she does. It’s about persevering.”
And while Sturtevant is proud of that string of accomplishments and Dionne’s approach to achieving them, she’s also pleased with her daughter’s motivation.
“She didn’t do this to get any credit or attention. She did it to make a difference, and then these other things just happened as a result of it. They dove-tailed,” she said.