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Dahn's Destination was Panama

As one might suspect, Girl Scouts do more than sell cookies. But few Girl Scouts do more than Southwestern Michigan College’s Caleigh Dahn. Dahn, 15, an aspiring zoologist from Coloma, has earned her Silver Award and spent the last two weeks of July in Costa Rica and Panama learning about coastal ecology and assisting with sea turtle conservation.

While raising $4,000 for her “Destination,” Dahn and her pioneering digital Troop 8397 of Michigan and Wisconsin May 13 hosted the Sea Turtle 5K Run/Walk at Cass County’s Dr. T.K. Lawless Park southeast of Vandalia on Monkey Run Street.

Dahn figured the name would be appropriate since newly-hatched sea turtles “run” toward the ocean after birth to avoid being preyed upon by birds.

“It did seem out of place,” Dahn said, “but the name helped bring people to the event because it stuck out like a sore thumb.”

Besides getting certified for open-water scuba diving, Dahn cleaned beaches and helped at a sea turtle site in San San, Panama.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “We got to be submerged in the culture, which changed my perspective on a lot of things. I’m very glad I went. It took me out of my comfort zone.

“We spent four days in Costa Rica, the rest in Panama. I’ve wanted to leave the country to experience different cultures since I was little, but spending two weeks in hot, humid, tropical Central America made me appreciate the Midwest. Less bugs.”

They pitched their tents on a dock. Her group of seven included three Girl Scouts from the San Francisco area, two from New Jersey and one from Pennsylvania, plus two leaders.

They ate “local fish,” chicken and rice, beans, plantains and burritos. “Their cooking is amazing,” said Dahn, who knows “basic Spanish.”

“To round off my Destination, I plan on going into the Coloma school district and teaching third and fourth graders about conservation and how one person can impact their community. I’ve created a game and slide show to present to them the third week of October.”

For her Silver Award Dahn placed a “buddy bench” at Grace Christian School in Watervliet, which she attended for two years.

St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Elks Lodge 541 presented her with an American flag in recognition.

Dahn, who started attending SMC at 14 through the Berrien Springs Parent Partnership, is devoting the next two years to achieving her Gold Award, equivalent to Boy Scouting’s Eagle Award.

“It’s an award they make a big deal about,” she said. “I have to pick a topic I’m a passionate about, create a team, get it accepted by the council and raise the money myself.

“I’m partnering with Binder Park Zoo to plan and construct an interactive enclosure for one of their African hornbills. Her name is Eliza and she’s about 2 years old. I want to make conservation real to people. I plan to go into marsupials and mammals in the future.”

Dahn expects to complete her general associate in science degree at 17, then transfer to Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., for her bachelor’s degree in biology.

“They’re building a new science building,” said Dahn, who considered becoming a large-animal veterinarian, but “didn’t want to be around them so much at their worst when they’re hurting.”

By remaining active in the Sheboygan troop after living in Wisconsin for five years, “I got special approval from the council if I go to half the meetings in Wisconsin and half digitally” via Zoom video conferencing.

“This year, one of my best friends, who lives in the Baroda area, also became a virtual scout with the troop in Wisconsin,” Dahn said. “We’re the first of our kind.”

Many Destinations adventures are available for girls ages 11 and older besides Dahn’s Scuba and Sea Turtle Adventure.

“There are Destinations for different reasons, from tourism to one like I went on that helps the community with service,” she said. “Going into zoology was a big factor, but another factor in my decision was my mom’s parents were missionaries to Central America. She grew up in Panama.

“Girl Scouts has lots of opportunities most people don’t know about” across the United States and in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Mongolia, the Channel Islands, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Belize and Ecuador.

 “I really want to go to Germany” due to her heritage. “My ancestors had their own castle.”