Veteran Voices: Nikole R. Bridges the Racial Divide in Her Community Through Powerful Veteran Stories
For her Gold Award project, Nikole R. from Girl Scouts of Eastern South Carolina, gave a voice to local veterans and worked to bring her community together through shared history. To capture and preserve their untold stories, she interviewed 29 Dorchester County veterans from different ethnic backgrounds, representing multiple wars and conflicts. The result: a four-hour documentary film, Our Veteran Stories: FOREVER Live Our Dorchester County Heroes.
These brave men and women shared stories of courage and sacrifice, and an understanding of the mental health issues facing so many veterans today. The documentary is now on permanent display at the Archives and History Center in St. George, and in the library at the South Carolina Museum in Columbia, South Carolina, so that these communities can access them and learn from them for many years to come.
“Throughout the interview process and partnership in the community, I began to see the racial gap close. No one focused on the race of the person; they only listened to the stories of men and women whose bravery was not appreciated as we moved through our daily lives,” Nikole said.
Selected as a State of South Carolina Distinguished Finalist for the Prudential Spirit Community Awards and featured on the local news, Nikole’s project continues to expand its positive impact, helping future generations to know their local history and the veterans who have sacrificed so much to shape it, while also bridging the racial divide in her community.
Q: Why did you choose this topic for your Gold Award Project?
A: Beginning in 2014, my Girl Scout troop hosted an annual Veterans Day Dinner and Appreciation program to honor veterans from my local community, St. George, South Carolina. Each year I saw new faces and witnessed the pride the veterans displayed as they stood up to introduce themselves. I realized there was so much more to them than their name and branch of service. A dinner, the 10-second introduction, and a “thank you for your service,” just wasn’t enough. I wanted to hear their stories of bravery, courage and sacrifice. Veterans die every day and those stories are being lost. I knew I had to preserve as many stories as I could.
According to the 2010 census, the town of St. George, which is the county seat of Dorchester County, South Carolina, has a population of 2,067. The population make-up is 47 percent African American, 52 percent Caucasian and 1 percent Hispanic. Even with a small difference between African American and Caucasian residents there is still a division in my local community. My project and the stories told through it is continuing to bridge that gap.
Q: What’s the biggest obstacle you faced in completing your Gold Award project?
A: My desire was to include anyone willing to participate, regardless of race, but I was unsure if others had the same mindset. I thought about the possibility of Caucasians not participating because I was an African American, not to mention my community was still, somewhat, racially divided.
I was concerned about not having a diverse group of veterans, but I disregarded my concerns (fear) and forged ahead. I met the majority of veterans for the very first time the day of the interview. I am glad that I did not give in to my fears. The veterans that I met for the first time were like reuniting with long lost friends. They were excited about sharing their stories, and I was excited to listen. I discovered that my desire to make a difference in my community was greater than my fear of people not participating.
I discovered an undefeatable spirit. These discoveries will help me in the future because I will be ready to accept challenges with greater confidence.
Q: How has your project been successful, and how have you worked to ensure it is sustainable?
A: My project impacted the 29 veterans interviewed, the residents of the St. George community, visitors to the Dorchester County Archives and History Center, and the community as a whole, because they can view the documentary whenever they want. School aged children will attend field trips to the museum specifically to see and hear the stories.
My project reached far beyond my community and Dorchester County. It was selected as a State of South Carolina Distinguished Finalist for the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. This project was also featured in a local news segment: “Every Day Heroes” on March 16, 2018.
The shares, likes and comments had more of an impact than I would have ever imagined. This project’s sustainability lives with everyone that views the documentary, with the schoolchildren that will see and hear the stories of these heroes, and within the global community connections made through the process of creating the documentary.
Every year for Veterans Day, my project will be on display at the Dorchester County Archives and History Center in St. George during the entire month of November.
Q: How has working on this project changed you, and what skills did you learn?
A: Completing my Girl Scout Gold Award project was one of my greatest accomplishments. Earning the award was important, but what I learned and the relationships I established were life changing. Stepping out of my comfort zone ended up being an invaluable and rewarding experience.
Because of this project, I established relationships with members of the community, to include the Mayor of St. George and the Chief of Police. Several people told me that I am “the tie that binds” and could be the key to bringing my segregated community together, which would be amazing.
This project made me realize that what you see when you look at someone is not always a true picture. Never would I have imagined that I would have met someone who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); someone who verbalized contemplating suicide; someone whose mission in Vietnam was to “search and destroy,” or someone who established a suicide hotline for other veterans and/or families who had trouble coping with the memories of war.
The skills I gained from this project were optimism, time-management, inclusion and trustworthiness, all of which will be benefit me in the future.
Q: How has being a Girl Scout impacted your life?
A: Girl Scouts has helped me to discover who I really am—a true leader destined to do great things.