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Marietta resident Paola Berrios, 17, recently received the Girl Scout Gold Award for her project, ‘The Shoulder to Lean On,’ an interactive website that helps teenagers impacted by loved ones battling cancer. 

Seventeen-year-old Marietta resident Paola Berrios recently received the Girl Scout Gold Award for her project, “The Shoulder to Lean On,” an interactive website that helps teenagers impacted by loved ones battling cancer.

“My mission was educating teenage loved ones of cancer patients on cancer, and reminding them that no matter what the circumstances may be, they’re not alone,” said Berrios, whose mother, Maria Maldonado, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Her father is Ivan Berrios.

The cancer diagnosis greatly impacted Berrios. “I felt very alone. I felt extremely alone,” she said.

After her mother was cancer-free in spring 2016, Berrios developed the project to help others struggling with cancer in their family. “I just had this moment after my mom was diagnosed cancer-free. I said, ‘This (project) is exactly what I want to do.’ I want kids to understand that it’s OK to struggle, but that we’re not alone. We need to take care of ourselves. We need to take care of ourselves and we need to take care of the people we care about,” she said.

The project provides a healing mechanism. “It’s important for teens, especially. Teenagers don’t like to admit there’s something going on. We don’t like to admit we’re scared. We don’t like to ask for help. We tend to look to the internet,” Berrios said.

The website is easy to use with no login or other information required. “You just go in, look up what you need to and it’s there. There’s no middleman. You don’t have to go to a therapist. You don’t have to go to a doctor. It’s there. It’s really easy to look up. It can really come in handy for kids who need it,” said Berrios, a graduate of Georgia Cyber Academy, a K12 Inc. powered online public charter school (not a homeschool program). She enrolled in GCA in third grade.

Berrios said she was able to attend her mother’s doctor’s appointments because she could complete her schoolwork anywhere with an internet connection.

“I understood what was going on in a physiological aspect of (my mother’s cancer), but not necessarily the psychological aspect of it. I feel like (the project) would be helpful for kids because they need something anonymous. They need something they can come to because it’s hard, as a teen, to walk up to someone and say, ‘I need help. I need someone to talk to. I need a shoulder to lean on,’” she said.

“I couldn’t pinpoint why I was drawn to the project. But, now, I even want to work in that field. It was fascinating to me. It just kind of happened. I knew that there was a chance other kids wouldn’t have to go through what I went through,” said Berrios, who was selected as a finalist for a Presidential Scholarship at Agnes Scott College as well as Georgia State University, where she will attend in the fall. She is also a member of the Meliora society (club for the top 1 percent of each class) and the National Honor Society, worked on the school newspaper and was Salutatorian of her class.

To learn more about “The Shoulder to Lean On,” visit theshouldertoleanonproject.wordpress.com.

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