Story by David Karas | Correspondent
When then-eighth grader Jacqueline Wenzel joined her Girl Scout Troop 23267 walking in the Miss America Pageant “Show Us Your Shoes” parade, she couldn’t help but notice something striking: while contestants were driven down the Atlantic City boardwalk with shoes decorated to reflect their home state, they were passing both spectators and those living in extreme poverty.
The clash of opulence and homelessness struck Wenzel – and inspired her to act.
“I was astonished by the poverty surrounding this glamorous parade,” said Wenzel, now 18 and a senior in Cherokee High School, Marlton.
At the age of 15, the teen from St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, decided to tackle homelessness in Atlantic City for her Girl Scout Gold Award service project.
“Entering high school soon, my gold award was constantly on my mind, trying to come up with new ideas, and helping with the poverty in Atlantic City seemed to be the most beneficial,” she recalled. “I always knew that I wanted to go into the medical field in my future, so this project had a certain draw to me.”
Over the course of two years, Wenzel worked tirelessly to collect more than 800 pairs of shoes and collect or purchase a combined 400 pairs of new socks to assist the homeless. She teamed up with the Miss America organization to help collect items during its Atlantic City parade, as well as with the AtlantiCare Mission Healthcare’s annual health fair for those experiencing homelessness.
In addition to providing new shoes, Wenzel also distributed “blessings bags” with socks and foot care and first aid supplies. She also created education boards to provide information on foot disorders suffered by the homeless and shared that information with health fair attendees.
“It has been a pleasure to work with someone so young and passionate about giving back to the community,” said Vincent Kirkland, care manager for AtlantiCare.
Her project ultimately aided in Wenzel earning the coveted Gold Award – the highest honor a Girl Scout can attain – but the project had much more of an effect on the young woman.
“Being able to help is continually one of the best feelings in the world,” she said, recalling a particular moment during her service. “When we were dropping off the shoes one night, the men helping me unload the car had such smiles on their faces when seeing the shoes ... I honestly cried.”
Wenzel also acknowledges the need for the items she so diligently collected and her continued commitment to the cause.
“The need for shoes and socks this time of year is great because of the frigged weather,” she said. “The shelter still needs more help as do these people who are just trying to get back on their feet. My project may be officially over, but I am still trying to help by collecting shoes.”
Wenzel acknowledges the challenges she encountered during the course of her project – including contacting organizations that did not get back to her – but perseverance was the only option she considered.
“I didn’t let them ignore me. I went in person to talk with them,” she said. “I brought shoes to donate so that they would feel obligated to speak with me and knew that I was serious.”
In a recent interview, Wenzel reflected on how service has become an integral part of her life – and one that is closely linked with her faith.
“The service ideas were just a natural part of the [St. Joan of Arc] community and because of that, they now come naturally to me,” she said. “It’s just a part of who I am.”
To date, she has dedicated more than 600 hours of service to the local community, ranging from efforts at the local animal shelter, to teaching CCD courses, to helping special-needs children.
In the future, Wenzel has her sights set on a career in the medical profession as a doctor.
“I want to help as many people as I can,” she said. “One speaker that came to speak at St. Joan of Arc does missionary work in Jamaica. I hope to do something like that in my future.”
Wenzel’s father, John, could not be more proud of his daughter’s efforts.
“Jacqueline has always had a passion for her faith and for finding opportunities to help others,” he said. “Her Girl Scout gold project is an example of her noticing a need – that the homeless population did not appear to have access to proper footwear – and finding a way to help a local community fill that need.”