MARIETTA, Ga. - You could say Paola Berrios has been around the block as a Girl Scout, and she’s earned the badges to prove it.
The Marietta, Georgia, 17-year old has been a Scout since the first grade.
"Everybody, when they think about Girl Scouts, they say, 'Oh, do you sell cookies? Oh, you go camping in little pink tents?'” Berrios jokes. “ “No, there is so much to than it to that."
But Berrios had no idea how much a badge, or a project, could mean until her mother, and closest confidante Maria Maldonado was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"To say that it was a shock would be kind of an understatement,” she says. "I didn't know how to deal with it. I couldn't function for the longest time, because how could my mom have cancer?"
Berrios, who is home-schooled, was able to go with her mom to her appointments at Wellstar Health System's Cancer Center, where Lisa Sherman, an oncology nurse and navigator works with patients facing breast cancer.
"One of the first things they're concerned about is not them, or how they're going to get through treatment, but their family,” Sherman says.
To help them cope, adults have support groups, and younger children play therapy.
"But that teenage to middle school population, I hadn't come across anything that could be used, that could be relevant to them,” says Sherman.
So, Berrios created The Shoulder to Lean On Project, a website to give teenagers facing a loved one's cancer diagnosis what she didn't have: a place to find advice, and information about what to expect.
"I want kids to have a better experience than I did,” Berrios says. “Because I was alone, and I was afraid, and I didn't know what to do with myself. I don't want that to happen to anybody else."
The website is written by teens, for teens. There is no medical jargon, and no frightening statistics, just hard-earned understanding.
"I want to make a community where people feel safe, and people feel like they're going to be okay. It's hard. It sucks, but it's going to be okay."
In April, Maria Maldonado was declared "cancer free." And their journey together has inspired Paola Berrios to apply to Agnes Scott College and Emory University, and eventually to medical school, to become -- you guessed it -- a cancer doctor.
"This project kind of fostered a love of oncology for me, as morbid as that sounds,” Berrios says. “I've really been fascinated by it."
"I can see her becoming an oncology doctor, and taking this experience and becoming an awesome one,” Sherman says.
And, Paola Barrios has been nominated for the Girl Scout's highest honor: the Gold Award. It’s the ultimate patch for paying it forward.
You can find The Shoulder To Lean On Project at https://theshouldertoleanonproject.wordpress.com.