By Mattie Kahn
It’s winter, and dozens of bundled middle schoolers in t-shirts and taupe vests funnel into a conference room in downtown New York. The weather outside is grim, but the mood in here is ebullient, an explosion of colors and sounds.
In one corner, markers, magazines, and construction paper have been stacked on particle board tables. Clustered around the doors, staffers hand out schedules. Theirs is an audience that’s obsessed with what’s next.
Welcome to Career Day for Girl Scout Troop 6000; the first troop formed to serve homeless scouts in New York City. It was founded at the Sleep Inn, a hotel in Queens that had been converted into a shelter. The 10-floor hotel served around 100 families, with dozens of children between them. But within months, further demand forced Troop 6000 to expand. Around 60,000 people are accommodated in New York’s main shelters; according to the New York Times, 40 percent of them are children. Last summer, 14 additional shelters joined Troop 6000, in partnership with the New York City Department of Homeless Services, and about 300 scouts are now enrolled.
Like all troops, the scouts meet for activities, sell cookies (which Troop 6000 recently did to much fanfare), and travel for field trips. But this excursion was special, because it wasn’t in a museum or a park or a classroom. It was in that grownup temple, that destination for women who wear suits and make to-do lists. It was in an office.
Shay, 14, who joined Troop 6000 a few months after its expansion, marveled at the elevator banks and landline phones; the trappings of “real jobs for real ladies.” She’s one of the older scouts, which means at least three younger ones materialize wherever she goes—her Girl Scout groupies. Her “main focus” is her career, she tells me, and the plan is to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Cats are her favorite animal, but pets aren’t allowed in homeless shelters. So she’s made her peace with it: she’ll have to wait. For now, she prints out photos—for inspiration, she explains. And she teaches the 11- and 12-year-olds that whatever their aims, they’re not out of reach.
“These are my little sisters,” she insists. “I like to help them. I like when they see me, they think that’s a good way to be. I’m an influence, and I want to be a good one.”
The fact that even at 10 or 12 or 14 a scout might be able to have an affect on the people around her is a message that staffers are determined to communicate. At Career Day, lawyers and journalists are on hand to explain not only how they realized their professional aims, but how mentors and peers motivated them to push past inevitable obstacles. During one session, a scout wants to know: “With so many of our families not going to college, isn’t it hard to think about getting there when the people around you haven’t? Most of the time, if you go, you have to leave home, and do you think I’ll be scared?” The room erupts in applause and supportive cheers—”Good question! Good question! She asked a good question!”—before the speaker can even address her.
In a culture that doesn’t quite welcome female outspokenness, Meridith Maskara, CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater New York, believes it’s her mission to cultivate it, “to make sure our young women know how to use their voices.” There’s a “din of conversation” on Twitter and Facebook, and so Maskara wants to be sure that the kind of discussions Girl Scouts facilitates are productive—which, to her mind, means that they don’t just build empowerment or leadership or collaboration, but trust. Girl Scouts are at a vulnerable age no matter their circumstances, Maskara points out. In Troop 6000, they endure all the usual stresses of pre-adolescence, plus the added pressure of homelessness. “We wanted to give them a space to just be, to make friends, to not be so conscious of their situation,” she tells me.
Troop 6000 was launched by Giselle Burgess, 32, who was herself a staffer at Girl Scouts of Greater New York when she became homeless in August 2016. Her rental home had been put up for sale; the land was slated for condominiums. Burgess has five children whom she supports on her own. She was shuttled into the Sleep Inn, and the idea for Troop 6000 was born. “When I first became homeless myself, I’d always thought homelessness was the man outside with the cardboard sign asking for money,” Burgess told BuzzFeed News in April. “But it’s working women, it’s working families.” (Girl Scouts of Greater New York waives all fees for members of Troop 6000.)
“You don’t want to admit homelessness is happening in your area or on your block,” Maskara admits. “But what this did was force us to really confront this problem and ask ourselves, ‘What can we do?'” It’s been over a year from the announcement, she continues, “and we’re still gaining steam.”
Whatever happens in their families and no matter where they end up (even if they leave shelters entirely, as Burgess did), Troop 6000 is “the constant,” Maskara says. “Whatever happens, these girls have each other. We can give them that support, like, ‘I belong.'”
“At first, when I heard about it, I was like, ‘Do I even want to do this?'” remembers Daisy, 15. “But I said, ‘Daisy, give it a chance.’ And now I love it, how we’re all here together and we get to bond.” She now wants to be a teacher or a pediatrician, so that she can continue to be a role model for younger kids. “I learned that in Girl Scouts,” she says. “That I’m good at this and I have something to contribute.”
Despite all the emphasis on what’s ahead, Layla, 10, tells me she’s satisfied with what Girl Scouts has to offer now. “I like Girl Scouts because you’re not scared to make a mistake,” she explains. “In school, I never want to get the wrong answer or mess up. But people in Girl Scouts just tell me, ‘Try your best.'” (If pressed, however, Layla whispers that she would like to go to law school, because, first, she wants to help people, and second, Judge Judy is her favorite show.)
Still, Eve Valentin, 41, a volunteer troop leader in the Bronx who helped shepherd some of the scouts to the New York Legal Assistant Group headquarters, the donated space for the event, tells me the focus on the future is intentional. “I tell the girls, ‘This is your parents’ situation, not yours. Homelessness is not who you are; it’s where you are now.” Valentin applied to work with the Girl Scouts after her doctor recommended that she spend more time with others, the better to fight off anxiousness. “It’s been the best medication,” she insists. “I’m able to do something, to see these girls blossom, to see them shine.”
The job has made Valentin feel “purposeful.” It’s given her the sense that what she does and how she behaves matters. “They count on me. A lot of insecurities that they have are about their circumstances. They get bullied in school because they live in shelters; not knowing when they’re going to get out, not knowing who they can trust or where they’re going to be tomorrow. I tell them, ‘I haven’t been around the world, but I’ve seen a few things. I know you can make it out of this. I know it’s all going to be beautiful.'”
Originally published in Elle on April 23, 2018