Giselle Burgess knew moving into a homeless shelter with her five kids would be tough for her family. For security reasons, kids can’t hang out in each other’s rooms or in the hallway, so Burgess wanted more of a community feel.
As Queens community development specialist for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, Burgess already knew the benefits of joining a troop. She figured starting a Girl Scout troop in the 100-family Queens homeless shelter was the perfect solution. (Meet the woman who plans birthday parties for the homeless.)
Burgess called up Heidi Schmidt, director of government relations for the New York City Department of Homeless Services. Together, they formed a troop for the homeless shelter. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York covered the costs to make it affordable for the homeless girls. (Visit their page if you’d like to donate.)
Girl Scout troops from the other five New York boroughs are numbered in the 1000s, 2000s, 3000s, 4000s, and 5000s. The new troop picked 6,000 to represent the homeless girls. Other Girl Scout troops have formed in other states before, but this was the first one in New York. More than 62,000 people in the city are homeless, and about 40 percent of those are children.
Just eight girls, including Burgess’ three daughters, attended the first meeting, but they quickly spread the word. Now, Troop 6000 has 25 consistent members. The girls had seen each other around in the building before, but the meetings turned them into friends. “They are there to support each other and spread positivity,” says Burgess. “They see each other in the hallway and there’s just hugs.”
Troop members range from five years old to early teens, but the age gap doesn’t get in the way of their sisterly bond. The older members are protective of the younger scouts, helping them with activities. Not only are they spreading love, but they’re learning responsibility. “These girls are taking that leadership and owning it,” says Burgess.
The troop is already inspiring feminist leadership for the girls. Leaders from around the community, including the chief operating officer of Girl Scouts of Greater New York, district manager of a community board, Queens Borough representative, and a local councilmember attended the first meeting. “All the adults in the room were women except the councilmember,” says Schmidt. “Three girls asked separately, ‘Are you the boss of the Girl Scouts?’ to the man in the room.”
Since then, meetings with Troop 6000 have shown them women can be leaders, too. For instance, a visit the New York City Council showed Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito as a woman in power.
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Even beyond their weekly activities learning about a theme like women’s suffrage, financial literacy, or first aid, the girls are stepping up as leaders. Every meeting, they rotate responsibilities such as handing out snacks, taking attendance, and cleaning up. “It builds in this level of respect because they all know they have to come around and take the role on,” says Schmidt.
And that responsibility lasts beyond the Girl Scout meetings. Burgess says she’s proud every time a girl talks about sticking up for a classmate, or when a mom says her daughter is suddenly stepping up more to help the family.
Plus, the troop is trying to get the rest of the community involved. Burgess and Schmidt hope to encourage women to take on leadership roles with the troop and to bridge the gap between the shelter and the rest of the neighborhood. “It would be so much easier for families living in the shelter and for the community to understand and not feel like it’s a burden upon them or be afraid of who’s in the shelter,” says Schmidt. “It’s good for families to know they’re embraced and welcomed by the community. The girls can go on to do great things and not be bound by their current situation.”
In fact, one woman has already volunteered to become the first leader for Troop 6000—and she doesn’t even have a daughter, says Burgess.
Troop 6000 hopes to inspire Girl Scout troops to pop up in more shelters around the city. The girls might be enjoying some press right now, but Burgess says they won’t be sad when coverage dies down. “They say, ‘That means our job is done and we passed it on,’” says Burgess.