SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Isabela Allen flashed an ear-to-ear smile as applause rang out from a large group of family, friends, and Union Catholic faculty who gathered for a very special ceremony on a sun-splashed Friday afternoon at Jerseyland Park in Scotch Plains.
A host of officials attended including Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith, Deputy Mayor Josh Losardo, Deputy Township Mayor Margaret Heisey, and Recreation Director DJ Salvante, as well as representatives of Union Catholic and Dr. Adele Ellis, principal of Holy Trinity School in Westfield, where she also was a student.
Allen, a senior at Union Catholic, had just finished reading a speech for the Grand Opening of her “Story Stroll,’’ and she was beaming with pride as the mayor cut the ceremonial ribbon to mark the occasion.
Allen’s Story Stroll is a literacy-based Girl Scout Gold Award project. It consists of a collection of placards mounted on posts and containing the pages of a children's picture book. This enables children to learn and practice reading skills as they stroll through the park with their caregivers.
The Story Stroll the high school student a year and half to complete, but she said all the sweat and hard work was well worth it.
“It’s immensely rewarding and gratifying to have completed the physical project,’’ said Allen, who lives in Scotch Plains. "I started this project the summer before my junior year, so I have been planning and thinking about and working on it for a while."
"There was so much work involved — submitting a proposal to the Girl Scout Council and interviewing to get my project approved, doing research about early childhood literacy, presenting my idea to the Parks & Recreation Commission for approval, drafting a design for the signs, selling handmade bookmarks to raise money, and finally building the signs," she said. It was exhausting!"
"The work was all worth it, though, because it is so special to know that something I built with my own hands will now stand in the park for years and give joy to countless children," Isabela added. "It was a really fulfilling, worthwhile experience. At the same time, I am so relieved to have finished the project!’’
How did Allen come up with the idea for her project?
“When I decided to do my Gold Award, I approached the Scotch Plains Public Library and asked if there was any task I could complete for them,’’ said Allen. “I have visited the library since I was a little girl, and I really love it there. I love to read, so I feel completely at home at the library. The staff there are always so friendly and helpful, and they have amazing public programs, from painting to astronomy to gardening. When I approached the library, the head of the children’s department said that this project had always been on her wish list.’’
Allen said The “Story Stroll” is inspired by The Story Walk ®, which was created by Anne Ferguson. After receiving advice from a local lumber store, Allen came up with a unique design that consists of a weather-resistant movie poster frame mounted on a sturdy wood frame, which she built herself out of pressure-treated lumber.
“I had to build 17 of these signs, which was a lot of work, but I got help from family and friends,’’ said Allen. “I picked the number 17 because the average picture book has 32 pages, so 2 pages could go in each of the 16 signs, and then the 17th sign could contain a welcome sign."
Recreation Director Salvante commended Jerseyland because it has a paved walking path, so that signs could be placed along the path and easily accessible to visitors.’’
Allen’s eyes lit up as she explained the Story Stroll to some children who came to experience the new addition to the park.
“I hope that my project will inspire the young children who visit the park to have a lifelong love of reading,’’ said Allen. “I really love to read, and I want to share the incredible joy and magic of reading with children. It is so important for children to be exposed to reading at an early age. It helps with their cognitive development and sets them up to perform better in school and have higher chances of success later in life."
"I hope that my project materially helps children in my community to learn to read and to learn to love reading. As children walk through the park with their caregivers, they will form positive associations with reading and will strengthen their nurturing bonds with caregivers. If my project can make a real, positive difference in the lives of the children who visit it, I will be thrilled," she said.
Allen hopes children will come back again and again to read new stories as the librarians swap out new books into the Story Stroll, and that they enjoy it and learn from it each time. She feels blessed to receive so much support.
“I received guidance and advice from Lanora Melillo, the Head of Youth Services at the Scotch Plains Public Library, Michelle Willis, the Director of the library; and DJ Salvante, the Director of the Scotch Plains Department of Parks & Recreation,'' said Allen. "Westfield Lumber provided expertise in the designing of the signs and also donated some supplies, as did the Garwood Home Depot."
"My Girl Scouts project advisor, Elena Nazzaro, used her talents as a graphic designer to design a beautiful welcome sign for the “Story Stroll”, and Mr. Kyle Ellis of Hummel Integrated Marketing Solutions generously donated the printing of the welcome sign. Lisa Mohn, President of the Scotch Plains Business and Professional Association, supported my bookmark fundraising sales and introduced me to people such as the Mayor and Council members of Scotch Plains. My family, of course, were hugely supportive and helpful during this entire project. My good friend, Kaitlyn Dohn, also a senior at Union Catholic, helped me build and install the signs. This project taught me that it takes a village! So many people offered their knowledge, support, and generosity, and I was honestly amazed at how wonderfully kind people can be, even strangers.’’
Allen’s Story Stroll project is an extension of the type of person she is, kind, caring, compassionate and hard working.
Allen embodies everything that UC represents, and takes a lot of pride in being a good person.
“My favorite UC Core Value is compassion, because it’s such a simple thing and yet it’s so powerful,’’ said Allen.
“It is so easy to be kind to someone—to just smile at them in the hallway or offer supportive words when they’re feeling upset—but it can make such a difference in their life. Compassion is a beautiful thing to give and to receive. I think compassion is strongly present at UC, and I’m proud to go to a school where people are so friendly and caring.’'
Allen, one of five members of her family to attend UC, has compiled a remarkable resume at Union Catholic.
- Ranked No. 1 in her class three straight years
- Qualified for the AP Scholar with Honors Award, Earned a perfect score of 36 on the reading portion of the American College Testing (ACT)
- Serves as a Student Ambassador
- Earned the Sister Regina Smith, RSM Endowed Scholarship, and Rensselaer Award & Scholarship
- Member of the National Spanish Honor Society, and National Honor Society. Placed in the gold category for the National Spanish Exam
- Honor Roll for every marking period of high school
- Named Commended Student in the National Merit Scholarship Program
“These awards honestly mean so much to me because I work really hard on my schoolwork, and spend a lot of time and effort studying and ensuring that I truly understand the material,’’ said Allen. “It’s so rewarding to have all my hard work and dedication pay off in the end.’’
What does Allen love the most about being a student at Union Catholic?
“The thing I loved the most about being a student at UC is the wonderfully supportive and welcoming environment,’’ said Allen. “The students are friendly and compassionate and the teachers are truly committed to helping you. UC just has such a vibrant sense of community, full of support and nurturing. I love the traditions, like Honor Roll Breakfasts, pep rallies, and the decorations in the hallways at Halloween and Christmas. Honestly, I love so many things about UC that it’s hard to choose just one as my favorite!’’
“As a student at UC, I have benefited the most from the supportive learning environment,’’ said Allen. “The teachers are very encouraging and truly invested in our success and growth as students. I have also benefited from the wonderful opportunities at UC, such as becoming a Student Ambassador and getting to represent Union Catholic at various events, and getting to fulfill a personal dream of mine by writing for the school newspaper, The Prophet. UC really encourages you to pursue your passions and grow as both a student and person.’’
Allen said that since her mother, Krystyna, went to UC (Class of 1989), she’s always been interested in becoming a Viking. “I had always been interested in Union Catholic because my mom attended UC,’’ said Allen. “When it was time for me to start looking at high schools, I was considering several schools. I liked UC because it had so many levels of learning, so I knew I would be getting a personalized education that was right for me, but I made up my mind when I came for Freshman for a Day. UC just felt like home to me, and when my mom came to pick me up I got in the car and said, “I want to go here.” It sounds cliché, but as soon as I walked in, I just knew that UC was the right place for me. I have loved my time here at UC, and it makes me sad to think that I’m going to graduate and leave at the end of the year. I’m definitely going to come back to visit!’’
What kind of advice would you give to younger students who are considering attending UC?
“I would tell younger students who are considering attending UC that UC is truly a special place with something for everyone, whatever your unique interests are,’’ said Allen. “UC will push you to blossom academically, encourage spiritual growth, step out of your comfort zone, and become a better version of yourself than you could imagine.’’
What is Allen looking forward to the most this school year?
“As a senior, I’m looking forward to senior traditions,’’ said Allen. “Of course, some of them, like prom, might not happen in person this year. But I’m still excited for things like senior portraits, eating lunch in the courtyard, and graduation. I get to graduate the day after my birthday, which is pretty cool!’’ What are Allen’s plans for the future?
“While I don’t have any definite choices, I am interested in looking at careers in statistics, economics, psychology, or cognitive science,’’ said Allen. “I would love to minor in creative writing because I love to write and hope to write a book one day.’’