Fourteen girls sat in the crew leader’s living room. The scent of potpourri infested the room. Valerie brushed her hands along the soft, beige carpet as Crew Leader Zinnia called the meeting to order. Val found herself wishing she could be anywhere else. Even stuck in a broom closet. But Mom had insisted she give this group another chance. A phrase from the crew leader won her attention.
“The top sales Sparrow for the week will win a prize.”
“Prize?” Cassandra’s hand shot up as she shouted her question. “What’s the prize?”
Crew Leader Zinnia gaped for a moment before answering. “I can’t tell you that right now, but it will be amazing.”
Valerie imitated Cassandra’s exuberant interrogation technique as her own hand went up. “More amazing than a year’s supply of ice cream?”
“It is not polite to interrupt, Val.” Crew Leader Zinnia stared the ten-year-old down with pink heat rising in her cheeks.
“But Cassie nothing. When I’m talking, you’re not!”
Valerie deflated. She took sharp, frustrated breaths. Out the corner of her eye, she spied Cassandra sticking out her tongue. Valerie wished she could rip it out of that spoiled brat’s mouth and boil it over an open flame.
“I’ll give each of you an order form in a moment. But before I do, I want you to remember these safety rules. Do not…and I repeat…do NOT try selling from these catalogs by going door-to-door. Second, do not sell to your friends.”
“What? Why not?” Cassandra stood from the prescribed “criss-cross applesauce” stance.
“Because your friends will order things based on their stomachs. When it comes time to pay, they won’t be able to fork over the money. Good question, as always, Cassie. Finally, do not sell outside a local store.”
Valerie thought over each restriction. There did not seem to be anyone to whom she could sell anything except her mom. That would not be possible. She raised her hand.
Crew Leader Zinnia frowned and rolled her eyes. “Hands down, please.”
“But Crew Leader Z—”
“Must I repeat myself? You know I don’t like having to do that.”
Valerie knew how true that was. The crew leader had not allowed her to have marshmallows at last weekend’s campfire because she asked for Zinnia to repeat an instruction about tying a sailor’s knot. Cassie had earned double marshmallows after the crew leader tied the perfect knot for her.
“Crew Leader Zinnia, how are we going to sell if we can’t sell door-to-door, to friends, or outside stores?”
“Excellent question, Cassandra! I’m so glad you asked. My recommendation is that you take this order form home and ask your parents to take it into work with them. They’ll sell to their coworkers and friends. If you go to church or synagogue or mosque or some other house of worship, your parents can sell there as well.”
Valerie thought she could identify a problem already. If parents were the ones doing all the sales, how could the Sparrow with the most sales expect a special prize? That girl would not have done any of the work. She raised her hand to point out this paradox.
“How many times do I have to say this, Val? I’m not taking questions now. One more time, and I won’t give you your order form.”
“Dang!” Cassandra giggled. “She straight roasted you!”
“How was that a roast?” Valerie asked, her forehead wrinkling.
“Enough! Valerie, I’m very disappointed. I’ll be talking to your mom when she come to pick you up.”
“Look! Val looks like she’s about to cry!” Cassandra pointed at the girl. All twelve of the other Sparrows took this as a cue to laugh and point.
When her mother’s old sedan pulled up in front of the crew leader’s house, Valerie stood on shaky legs and stumbled to the vehicle. Dried tear streaks itched on the girl’s cheeks. Behind her, Crew Leader Zinnia marched out to the car, her hands balled into fists. Valerie’s mom lowered the passenger window. The crew leader stuck her head through the opening and began to recite her complaints from the day’s Sparrow Meeting. Valerie could hear the frustration venting into the car.
On the way home, Valerie moped in silence. Her hair covered her face as she sat with head bowed.
“How do you think today went?” Mom’s voice sounded curious rather than furious.
“Could you tell me why?”
“I’d like to hear your version. Tell me everything.”
“We’re supposed to sell things from a catalogue. Why do we have to do that, mom? It seems pointless. There’s a prize for the Sparrow who sells the most, but that’s never going to be me.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say ‘never,’ Val. Why don’t you tell me what’s really bothering you?” Mom waited for the response without another prompting.
“I don’t think Crew Leader Zinnia likes me very much. She always gets upset when I talk. She never gets upset with anyone else. Especially not Cassie.”
“That must seem unfair. What about your other friends in the Sparrow Crew?”
Valerie wished she could identify one of the other girls with that label. “Cassandra won’t let any of them be nice to me. She always gets them to laugh at me. When I’m in trouble. When my clothes don’t look good. When I don’t have my hair done up like theirs.”
The two contemplated the situation for the rest of the drive home. They entered the trailer together, Mom holding onto the catalogue. She examined each page and commented on the way the picture made her mouth water. Mom had a great affection for salted caramel.
At dinner that night, Mom levered a slice of meatloaf onto their plates. “Val, sweetie. I just wanted to tell you. You’re going to win this competition.”
Valerie’s nose crinkled at the notion. “No, I won’t.”
“Sure, you will!”
“How? We’re not supposed to sell door-to-door, to our friends, or outside stores. Our parents are supposed to take the catalogues in to work. So you can see how this is all impossible, right?”
Mom shrugged. “Impossible is a strong word, dear.”
“You work as a janitor, mom! How are you supposed to—”
Mom chuckled. “I thought you were more creative than this, Val. Think about it for a second. Doesn’t another option spring to mind?”
A literal second passed, and the girl shook her head. How can she always be so optimistic? With a whimsical wink, Mom smiled and held her daughter’s hand. Behind her eyes, the machinations of Mom’s industrious mind turned.
At the next week’s Sparrow Crew meeting, Valerie entered the crew leader’s home with head held high. She clutched the results of her labor in her hand as if it were a diploma. Mind racing about whether she had done enough, she smiled at the total amount. Seven days of hard work had earned her far more than she had anticipated. Her backpack contained a bag with all the checks, dollar bills, and small change she had collected in that time. Valerie and Mom had spent their days volunteering at nursing homes, hospitals, and churches throughout the town. Mom had been right. When people see a ten-year-old pursuing a dream, most are willing to spare a few dollars from their wallets and purses. It did not hurt that their efforts had left Valerie feeling as though she had done more than simply outselling the competition.
Yet a nagging thought would not go away. What if someone had been able to collect more? Was all that effort worth it?
Crew Leader Zinnia gathered the Sparrows around her and asked the girls how they had fared during the week. Two of them had forgotten all about the fundraiser. Most of the others had not sold more than a single item to their parents. Cassandra stood with a smug smile plastered onto her face.
“I collected $1,002.15.” Cassandra sounded altogether too proud of herself.
“How did you get that much?” the Sparrows chirped.
“I did just what mommy said. She took the order form into work and her boss bought twenty of everything.” Cassandra shook out her hair in triumph as Valerie’s face fell.
“What about you, Val?” The crew leader asked the question with a dismissive tone, as if anticipating nothing.
“Well, not as much as Cassandra.” Valerie handed her order forms to Crew Leader Zinnia.
The crew’s sponsor stared at the papers in her hands. Her brow wrinkled. “Val, how did you collect $736.85 in one week?”
Cassandra stood up and ran behind the crew leader as if needing confirmation. The other Sparrows in the crew gasped.
Valerie described the undertaking as best as she could. A few times, she would veer off track, but the essentials of the tale came through clear. Unlike Cassandra, Valerie had done the work herself.
“Well, this was good work, Val. Good job.” Crew Leader Zinnia sneered as she said the words. The grudging compliment sounded forced. “But the winner of our competition is the one who sold the most. Cassie, that was you. Here’s your prize.”
Cassandra received a five-pound bag of gummy bears. The girl who had not earned her meager prize frowned at the bag as if it contained poison. “That’s it? I thought this prize was going to be amazing. Isn’t that what you said, mommy?”
The dozen other girls in the crew did not cheer on the winner. Instead, they crowded Valerie, congratulating her on her great effort. Appreciation made her feel like the real winner. When Mom informed the crew leader that her daughter would form her own Sparrow Crew, Valerie’s new friends vowed to swap nests. From then on, Valerie and her Sparrows made many headlines as young girls making a positive impact on their community.