Jenna McLaughlin, a senior at Wharton High, is the 43rd recipient of the Stars & Stripes award in the state of Florida, and the 980th overall recipient in the 27-year history of the American Heritage Girls organization. (Photos: Karl Greeson)

Jenna McLaughlin recently became the first girl in the New Tampa and Wesley Chapel area to earn the highest award that can be achieved from American Heritage Girls (AHG), a faith-based, scouting type organization.

Jenna is an 18-year-old senior who will graduate from Wharton High this spring. She also attends dual enrollment classes full time at Hillsborough Community College.

She is just the 43rd recipient in the state of Florida, and the 980th recipient in the 27-year history of the organization, to win the Stars & Stripes award. To qualify for the award, girls are required to earn 16 specific life skills badges in categories such as outdoor skills, science and technology and personal well being. They also must hold a leadership position in their troop for a minimum of six months, write a resume and essay about their personal spiritual journey, present at least three letters of reference, pass a Board of Review, and plan, develop and lead others in a service project that requires a minimum of 100 hours and makes a lasting impact on the community.

For Jenna’s project, she built a large stone fire pit (see photo) at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa Palms, which hosts her AHG troop. The fire pit was completed last fall and has already been used by different ministries both in and outside of the church for outdoor gatherings.

“I’m so grateful for all the support I received from my troop members, leaders and other volunteers,” says Jenna. “It was really rewarding to see it go from an idea in my head to an actual fire pit people can enjoy.”

Jenna’s mother Celeste is a troop coordinator and little sister Rylie is also in American Heritage Girls.

While the project represents one of the final steps to earn the award, Stars & Stripes is about much more than just the project. It is the pinnacle of the journey that aims to teach girls life skills, leadership, and a heart for service.

“I have had so many experiences that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for AHG,” Jenna says. She recalls going on a trip to earn the snow skiing badge, and spending a week living on a sailboat off the coast of Maine, learning about sailing and helping with many of the on-board tasks, from steering the boat to pulling up the anchor and preparing meals.

American Heritage Girls was founded in 1995 by parents looking for an organization that would embrace Christian values and encourage family involvement.

Founder Patti Garibay today serves as the executive director of the organization, which currently has troops in all 50 states and more than 50,000 girl members.

“Jenna, you joined AHG in 2013 as a Tenderheart and now you have achieved the highest accomplishment in this program, the Stars & Stripes Award,” said Garibay in a congratulatory video that was shared with the audience at Jenna’s award ceremony on Jan. 23. “All of us at American Heritage Girls — the staff, the board, and the volunteers — are so very proud of you.”

Jenna is one of 40 girls in her troop, which was founded five years ago by a leadership team that includes her mom Celeste, who is a writer for the Neighborhood News. Girls range in age from six to 18.

For more information about  American Heritage Girls, go to To connect with the New Tampa or Wesley Chapel AHG troops, use the “Find A Troop” button on that website.

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