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Girl Scout promotes inclusivity with downtown mural

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    Girl Scout Heather Miller stands in front of the mural she brought to downtown Elgin. Photos by Julianne Hodges
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    From left to right: Project advisor Melissa Ladd, Girl Scout Heather Miller and artist Ashley Smith speak about the mural and the process of creating it during Saturday evening's dedication ceremony.
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    At Saturday evening's mural dedication ceremony, this table offered information to visitors about the mural and the groups of people in the LGBT community represented by the mural.
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    Ashley Smith, the artist who painted the mural, before she starts working on the blank wall at 112 East Second Street. Photo courtesy of Ashley Smith
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    Attendees of Saturday’s mural dedication gather for a picture in front of the mural.

Inspired by her own experiences, a local Girl Scout brought a mural celebrating the LGBT community to earn the highest achievement a Girl Scout can obtain.

Heather Miller is a Girl Scout in the Elgin-area Troop 2334. This mural is the third in a series of projects Miller has participated in with her troop: in elementary school, her troop completed a Bronze Award project by painting a concession stand, then in middle school, she and her friend, Bonnie Halter, created a bilingual cookbook using mostly non-perishable food items for the Elgin Community Cupboard as their Silver Award project. Miller worked on her Gold Award Project on her own, with minimal help from her troop.

“A Girl Scout Gold Award project is an incredibly hard thing to get, and I've been working on it officially for only two years, but I've been working towards getting it since I was in elementary school,” Miller said. “I'm very glad that I've stayed in Girl Scouts for this long and been able to do all of these projects. They've helped me a lot, and they've helped me grow and learn. It's been really great to be a part of Girl Scouts.”

Miller’s Gold Award project is a mural in downtown Elgin at 112 East Second Street, on a building behind the BancorpSouth bank building. The mural, and Miller’s project, is about the LGBT community, which is term that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Miller, her Girl Scout troop and those who helped her with this project held a mural dedication ceremony on Saturday evening.

Miller said she has wanted to do an LGBT-themed mural in downtown Elgin for a while, but had not found a reason to do so until starting her Gold Award project. 

“I got the idea for the mural from different artists’ interpretations of figures dancing,” she said. “The figures are all very shapeless and genderless, so I thought that that form would be a really good one to take for a project that's all about being inclusive.”

Miller said she began looking for a project to do for her Gold Award when she was in 10th grade; she is now a senior at Elgin High School. She met with the city’s Historic Review Board to get permission to do a mural, and also had to get the project approved by the Girl Scout Gold Award Committee before she started. She found her project advisor, Melissa Ladd, who helped her find a place for the mural downtown.

Miller selected Ashley Smith, a local artist and owner of The Clever Tiger Art Studio in downtown Elgin, as the artist for the mural with a general idea of what the mural would be. Then, Smith began drawing a few different variations and the two settled on the design that felt right to both of them. Designing the mural was probably the hardest part of the project, Smith said; the painting itself only took a few days.

Smith said this mural is the kind of project that she seeks, and it matches the mission of the Clever Tiger to cultivate little creativity.

“One thing that really stood out to me was that it was very positive for all members of our community,” Smith said. “Since it's an LGBTQ mural, it truly supports that outside-of-the-box way of thinking, and living, and that's something we can get behind super easy. We're really excited to see it up, especially in a small town.”

Currently, Miller is finishing a website to go along with the mural as a learning component of her Gold Award project. The website will have photographs of the mural being painted, the process of creating the mural from beginning to end and resources and information about the LGBT community for youth and their parents.

“It's going to be used mostly as a documentation of my Girl Scout Gold Award project, and as a learning tool for people who haven't heard of the LGBT community, or have but maybe don't know enough about it, or kids who are trying to figure out if they're a part of it or not,” Miller said. “It's a place where you can go and learn.”

Miller, who herself is gay and who has many friends who are in the LGBT community, said she realized that many people did not know a lot about the LGBT community and found herself having to explain LGBT terms and identities to others on many occasions. She added that she decided to make the website to help inform people.

“I decided I wanted to do the mural to show people in general, not just kids, that being part of the LGBT community was normal and it wasn't something that's incredibly confusing or that you should be scared to be a part of,” Miller said.