Grieving in a safe space made possible by Gold Award Girl Scout

Gold Award Girl Scout Sophia MacDonald, center, stands with Linda Dinndorf, left, and Christine Phillips of Friends of Aine in the garden at the nonprofit in Manchester. MacDonald landscaped the garden to provide a safe place for people grieving lost family members. (Courtesy photo)

BEDFORD – Losing a loved one is always hard, but there are people and places who can help. To aid in that effort, Girl Scout Sophia MacDonald gave her time and muscle to Friends of Aine, a grief counseling service in Manchester, by working on the landscaping at their new location to create a calming garden with flowers, benches and a water feature. MacDonald has helped to make the world a better place and earned the highest honor in Girl Scouting for her work, the Gold Award.

MacDonald, 17, of Bedford, is a Girl Scout Ambassador in 12th grade at Bedford High School. She is close friends with the family who runs Friends of Aine (pronounced AHN-ya), and was aware they needed help with their new location. The nonprofit was begun to provide bereavement support services and resources to children and families who have suffered the death of a loved one, and is named for Aine Marie Phillips, who died unexpectedly at the age of 8 in 2010. Aine was a Girl Scout at the time, in Troop 22190.

Knowing since she was a little girl in Girl Scouts that she wanted to achieve the highest goals in Girl Scouting of the Bronze, Silver, and Gold Awards, MacDonald was inspired to help the family she was so close to. Despite little experience in landscaping, she was able to put together a team that weeded the area, created a path, and installed benches and a solar-powered water feature.

MacDonald raised the funds necessary with a unique project – homemade pickles in exchange for donations.

“My dad makes homemade pickles every year and all of our family friends rave about them, so every Christmas season we’ll gift them a jar,” she said. “So why don’t I do something that I know people will really like to receive in exchange for donating to my Gold Award? You donate a dollar, you get a jar of pickles. You donate $50, you still get a jar of pickles. It was very successful!”

She is grateful to the enormous support she received from both her Bedford area neighbors and the Lakes Region community, where she worked for the summer at Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford.

Linda Dinndorf was MacDonald’s advisor for the project, and is also a volunteer at Friends of Aine. She said she was thrilled to work with MacDonald and to have such a beautiful garden.

“Sophia far surpassed our expectations when she designed and developed our garden at the Friends of Aine Center,” said Dinndorf. “We had a small outdoor space that had become overgrown. It was not a pleasant spot to look at and certainly would not have been a place to even locate a bench for sitting as it was messy and a bit unnavigable. Sophia cleaned out the area, keeping and trimming some of the plantings that were special to us. She then created the garden that included a small gravel path that led to benches, a water feature, and new plants. It is now a very welcoming space, one that allows our grieving families a safe and peaceful place to sit and reflect about those who are most important to them.”

MacDonald put in 80 hours of work on the garden, and spent $1,154. More importantly, she gained valuable life skills that will help her in the future.

“I feel like I learned a lot throughout this entire experience,” she said. “Just learning how to plan in general. Learning how to communicate with business people – I’m a high school student, so I didn’t have too much experience in that aspect of things. I felt like I really learned how to embrace the community around me. I truly have never felt so connected.”

As MacDonald completes her final years as a Girl Scout, she cherished happy memories as a little girl camping with friends, helping her community, and maintaining great friendships.

“When I did my Bronze Award, my troop was still seven or eight girls who went all through elementary school together,” she said. “We built a bench together and put it in a garden at our elementary school. We built it in one of the Girl Scout’s garage, and I remember we had purple paint to paint it with, and I remember we were all laughing as we painted this bench and sharing details about how life is and how school was going because after elementary school we all got split up at McKelvie (Middle School). So it was always fun to reconnect over a project like that. My most recent memory is when I was crossing over the bridge to Ambassador, my mom – she’s the head troop leader – and she’s saying her last speech and she’s all teary eyed, and I walked across since I was 6 years old. It just really hit – I carried this all the way through. I am THE Ambassador, the original member of Troop 13973.”

Calling herself an overachiever, MacDonald has always worked hard at everything she does. Even when the pandemic made both school and Girl Scouts complicated, she was determined to see her Gold Award work through. She encourages other to “shoot for the stars” and follow her lead.

“Find something you’re passionate about,” she said. “Something I’m passionate about is helping those younger than me grieve the loss of a loved one, because I’ve learned how to properly grieve and I want to make sure that everybody else has that chance, too.

This straight-A student has been on the high honor roll since middle school and has always been involved in a variety of sports, including varsity crew team. She is also a dancer at the Bedford Dance Center, and a member of Best Buddies at her high school, which pairs students to mentor a person with intellectual or physical disabilities. MacDonald looks forward to attending college outside of New England to study criminal justice. Her dream career is working for the FBI as a crime scene investigator or detective.