A middle school friend’s “sexual assault crisis” and the lasting and traumatic effects it had on the girl inspired Therese Malinowski of Downers Grove to make a difference.
“That’s what made me passionate about sexual assault,” says Malinowski, 18, who will receive the Girl Scouts’ highest national honor tonight in a private online ceremony for recipients and their families. Malinowski’s groundbreaking project created an online database that tracks sexual assaults on college campuses.
“The fact that people treat the problem as taboo was further fuel to create this project,” she says. Malinowski used that fuel to get her project off the ground during her junior year at Downers Grove South High School, and finished it in her senior year in January 2020.
Being a Girl Scout isn’t rocket science, but Malinowski says she needed the same organization, leadership, commitment and team-building skills she now needs as a freshman engineering student at Purdue University, where she plans to study aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
“Girl Scouts in my older years taught me about leadership and positive growth,” she says. “It really prepares you for real-world events.”
Spending more than 100 hours researching campus assaults and creating the database, Malinowski worked with the domestic violence experts at Metropolitan Family Services DuPage, and also recruited 25 volunteers who attended three two-hour research events.
“We ate food, listened to music and crunched numbers,” she says.
The result is Project Dandelion, a comprehensive online database at projectdandelion.weebly.com that catalogs sexual assaults on 170 colleges in Illinois. The website lists the number of rapes and assaults each year, explains that only 23% of attacks are reported, and provides details on any action taken by authorities. It also includes tips on how to prevent assaults, details on times and places such assaults are most likely to occur, lists groups on campus working to stop sexual assaults, and gives names and phone numbers of officials (from police to Title IX coordinators) who can help victims.
“This is the first of its kind in the world,” Malinowski says, noting some colleges are not forthcoming about sexual assault numbers. “It’s hard to find and even harder to interpret.”
She initially sent emails to 100 colleges and got only one response, from the College of DuPage. So she started her online searches.
“It’s important now more than ever. There’s so much more behind every number,” Malinowski says. She’s hoping to continue her project by teaming with a national group that could expand the database to colleges across the nation.
That effort made Malinowski one of 10 National Gold Award recipients. “The ultimate accomplishment in the world of Girl Scouting,” says Nancy Wright, CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, which boasts 53,000 members and another 25,000 volunteers.
“You think about the 11-year-old selling cookies, but we’re so much more than that,” says Wright, who sees Malinowski as a role model for younger girls. Malinowski is the first teen from the Chicago area to receive the Gold Award in more than a decade. She and the other Gold Award recipients will be featured in an online “Girl Scouts Change the World” program in celebration of International Day of the Girl at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Instead of attending a lavish ceremony in New York City, Malinowski will participate online from her dorm room in West Lafayette, Indiana. In addition to receiving a $20,000 scholarship as part of the Gold Award, Malinowski says she earned another $18,000 in scholarship money by writing essays about her project.
She got the phone call telling her she’d receive the Gold Award this summer after coming home from a day working as a counselor at the Summer Science Camp at Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
“I don’t think a heart is supposed to beat that fast,” Malinowski says. The only people she could tell were her parents, Mary and Michael Malinowski, and her 17-year-old sister, Eleanore, who also is in Girl Scouts.
“I’ve been a Girl Scout since kindergarten,” says Malinowski, who progressed from Daisies to Brownies to Juniors to Cadettes to Seniors to Ambassadors.
As a Gold Award recipient she receives a life membership in Girl Scouts.
“I really enjoyed the opportunities the Girl Scouts gave to me,” she says. “I really wanted to be a change-maker and take full advantage of what Girl Scouts had to offer me.”