Building habitats for cats

Rescued felines at the Orange County Humane Society are about to feel more at home Monday, thanks to the efforts of three Girl Scout cadettes.

Representing the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa Girl Scout Cadette Troop 2360, Elise Denghausen, Julie Mariano and Sofia Vaides, all 13-year-olds who attend Ensign Intermediate School, have logged nearly 40 hours apiece on their chosen community-improvement project in an effort to achieve the Girl Scout Silver Award, the highest honor attainable by cadettes in their age bracket.

Working after school and on weekends since March, they have built 22, custom-designed "cat condos" and stitched together 24 handmade catnip toys for the shelter. They are also in the process of securing wet cat food donations from local pet stores and collecting used clean towels for the shelter.

"When we talked about what we wanted to do for this project, we all said we want to help animals," Elise said Tuesday, while the girls worked in her parents' garage finishing the condos.

"We went to the animal shelter to see how we could help and saw cat condos that a Boy Scout troop had built," she said. "I thought, 'Well we can do that.' We counted all the cats and saw that the shelter could use more condos, and we knew we could improve the design too. My dad's an architect, so he helped with that."

Using power tools, carpet scraps and plywood from discarded shipping crates, the girls, with help from Elise and Julie's dads, constructed 10 adult cat condos and 12 kitten condos. Each structure has hand-painted, removable tops and bottoms, so that the cats within them can be more accessible to visitors.

"When the girls asked the volunteers [at the shelter] what they needed, they suggested knitting or sewing coats for the dogs," troop leader and Elise's mother Diane Denghausen said. "But they aren't the knitting type."

Denghausen, a former Girl Scout who is leading five of her 10 cadettes through their Silver Award process, commended the Girl Scouts program.

"This has been an incredible learning experience for the girls," she said. "They are doing something that they chose from start to finish ... investing themselves in their community and what is important and interesting to them has been fascinating to watch. "

Elise, Julie and Sofia say they've learned a lot from an experience they describe as positive.

"We know how bad animals are treated sometimes, and we all love animals, so we made that our focus," Sofia said. "I learned that I needed to be really responsible with my time, and that I had to be patient learning how to use the sewing machine and things like that. It took a lot of time. Now that we're almost done, though, it's been really great to help like this and be able to give the cats new homes."

"We learned how to use power tools really well," Julie said, "but I do that with my dad on a lot of projects. I did get good at riveting though. And I really loved helping the cats and making them feel more comfortable in their cages."

"Being in Girls Scouts is awesome." she added. "We can do all the things boys get to do. We go camping, gun shooting, archery. It's so fun."

Similar to many Scouting projects, achieving the Silver Award — available to sixth-, seventh- and eighth- graders — challenges young people to make a difference in their community.

Orange County Humane Society Assistant Manager Kera Gomez, 24, said the cat condos are scheduled for delivery Monday and will immediately be put to use.

"These types of projects help the shelter a lot," she said. "The condos give the kittens a little scratch station sanctuary to play in and on. They climb all over them and the girls' new design will be really helpful. We're looking forward to it."

The cat-loving cadettes will receive their Silver Award pins and patches at an early 2013 awards ceremony, when the other two girls in their troop aiming for the Silver Award are expected to complete their individual projects.

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