Tenacious. Spirited. Champion. Fighter.
When an unofficial poll was conducted of over 150 Girl Scout staff and community members, asking them to share their thoughts about Cheryl Chow, nearly all of them used these words to sum up Cheryl’s work in the community and with Girl Scouts of Western Washington. These words aptly describe a woman who, as a principal, drill team leader, city council member, Girl Scout staffer and parent, has spent her life as an advocate for children.
Cheryl became a Girl Scout staff member in 2003, after retiring from the Seattle Public School District, where she served as principal at several schools. She served as a board member for Girl Scouts before former CEO, Grace Chien, told her of a job opening as a program director, serving the underserved girl population in the public school system as well as in communities throughout western Washington. Cheryl probably didn’t have to think twice before applying. This was her territory.
“Anything that related to education and different populations was her specialty,” says MaryLou Buckner, manager of the Girl Scouts Skills for Life (GSSL) program. “She wanted to see all girls – especially those with limited resources – get the opportunities they deserved.”
Melissa Winkler-Gaffney, who was supervised by Cheryl for three years, echoes that sentiment. “Cheryl did everything she could to fight for girls who otherwise wouldn’t have had the Girl Scout experience,” she recalls. “Whether it was writing grants or working in schools on behalf of the girls, Cheryl has always been a fighter.”
Cheryl was instrumental in bringing Girl Scouting in the School Day (GSSD) to Girl Scouts of Western Washington. GSSD is a program that allows girls in low-income schools who may face language or transportation barriers to participate during school in Girl Scout curriculum and activities – planned in partnership with teachers and administrators – in a variety of subjects such as math, science, leadership and life skills. Cheryl’s knowledge of the school system was incredibly helpful in developing partnerships with different schools, which helped GSSD become successful.
Carla Santorno, superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, believes Cheryl is “an incredible person. She is savvy, smart and supportive to any cause that supports children.”
It’s easy to understand, then, why Winkler-Gaffney says, “If Cheryl said something was going to work, it was hard for anyone to turn her down.”
Thanks to the foundation laid by Cheryl, Girl Scouts of Western Washington’s GSSD program is going strong in five schools in the Seattle and Tacoma School Districts.
Cheryl was also a program director for GSSL, a program geared toward girls in public housing communities that focuses on college readiness and skills such as time and stress management, how to make healthy and safe choices and how to investigate careers.
Among the many notable contributions she made to GSSL, Cheryl was instrumental in the planning and implementation of the Girl Scouts College Ready, funded by College Spark. This three-year pilot program served middle and high school girls in Kent, and taught college preparation, exposed them to college visits and inspired them to pursue advanced education.
Long before her work in GSSL and GSSD, Cheryl was also responsible for introducing travel opportunities to Girl Scouts of Western Washington.
“Many people don’t know that Cheryl led a yearlong program to take a group of girls to China,” says Chien. “It was a big deal. The girls had to apply, and then participated in a year of fundraising for the trip, as well as workshops where they learned about Chinese culture. It was an amazing trip, and an impactful experience.
“Cheryl is a very serious individual,” says Chien, “but she also has a quirky sense of humor. Most importantly, she is totally dedicated to kids, and really has a passion for what we do in Girl Scouts to build courage and leadership skills in girls.”
Co-worker Barbara Sparks also recalls how Cheryl took the time to get to know her daughter, Haleigh, who is also a Girl Scout. “She wanted girls to think about why they were Girl Scouts,” she says. “She would ask, ‘What are your goals? What do you like? What does Girl Scouts mean to you?’ She really cultivated that spark in girls to help them go out and become change agents in the world.”
Cheryl was so committed to her work, that even significant life challenges didn’t stop her from doing what she loved. In 2011, her father died and she struggled with a new illness that sent her in and out of the hospital. It would later be determined that Cheryl had brain cancer.
“Even then,” says Buckner, “she maintained her composure as best she could, and continued in her supportive and encouraging attitude toward me and her staff.”
“We’ve known since day one that Cheryl is a fighter, but I think it came into context more when she got sick,” recalls Winkler-Gaffney. “I think that really goes to show how brave she is, and how she just doesn’t give up.”
She hasn’t given up fighting for her health – a battle she is fiercely waging at this very moment – and has never given up fighting for youth.
Tenacious. Spirited. Champion. Fighter. All special words to describe an incredibly special woman whose commitment to making a difference has never changed – not even with retirement, loss or illness.
“She could have done other things with her time,” Buckner reflects. “But she chose Girl Scouts.”
Girl Scouts of Western Washington thanks Cheryl Chow for contributing to the success of our council, and contributing to the betterment of the lives of countless girls in western Washington!