Not long ago, eight-year-old Emma* was worried about where she and her family would sleep at night. After losing their home, her family spent weeks living out of a motel and with friends.
But since finding Family Promise, Emma and her family are in their own home, and Emma’s learning valuable skills, making friends, and anticipating camping out under the stars this summer – all because of Family Promise’s new Girl Scout troops.
For 30 years, Family Promise, headquartered in Summit, New Jersey, has served low-income families across the country, focusing on the root causes of homelessness and offering emergency shelter, homelessness prevention services, and post-housing stabilization support. The goal: Empower families facing a housing crisis to sustainable independence. Access to community programs like Girl Scouts is just one of the opportunities Family Promise offers as families work to regain independence.
But Girl Scout troops are formed based on the geographic location of their members. Where a girl resides determines which troop she joins. What if a girl doesn’t have a place to call home?
Two years ago in New York City, a single mother and Girl Scouts employee lost her home. While living in a shelter, she had the idea to create a Girl Scout troop for the girls there. In New York City, troops are numbered according to borough, so, for example, troops in the 1000s are from the Bronx, the 2000s from Brooklyn, and so forth, through the 5000s to accommodate the five boroughs. The 6000s had not been assigned to any region and was a natural sequence. Working with the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, who provided funding, nearly 30 girls came together and the first Girl Scout Troop 6000 was born.
The Troop 6000 model offers girls in the shelter system valuable friendship, leadership opportunities, and experiences while coping with the challenges of unstable living conditions. Troops receive funding from donors and the Girl Scouts organization.
Since 2017, other troops based on this model have formed across the country, including two in New Jersey which are run by Family Promise Affiliates in Essex and Union counties.
Family Promise CEO Claas Ehlers was immediately drawn to the idea when he first learned of the Troop 6000 model.
“Programs like this are an integral part of the fabric of American childhood, and anyone who has been involved in Girl Scouts will attest to the profound impact it has on a girl’s development,” says Ehlers. “Family Promise already had so many components in place to make this possible. It just made sense.”
He reached out to Nicole Warren, Community Programs Manager for Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey, to inquire about establishing a Family Promise troop. Once Warren began talking to Family Promise Affiliates in the area she realized there was enough interest to form two troops.
The Family Promise troops, whose 15 members range in age from four to 15, consist of girls whose families are currently served by or have graduated from Family Promise’s emergency shelter program. Troop leaders are Family Promise staff, scout moms, and community volunteers. At their kick-off meeting last fall, Emma and the other girls received uniforms, backpacks, Girl Scout pins, and other supplies, all provided by the Girl Scouts, and got a preview of the year ahead, including Girl Scout summer camp.
“Girl Scouts was a new concept to these girls,” says Warren. “They didn’t really know anything about it before. Now they look forward to every meeting!”
So far, the scouts have spent a night “camping” at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City and attended a performance and behind-the-scenes tour of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. They also completed “Cookie Rookie” training, a workshop for new scouts that teaches them everything they need to know about selling Girl Scout cookies, just in time for the annual cookie sale currently in progress.
Geleen Donovan, Executive Director of Family Promise-Union County, believes scouting offers the girls opportunities to develop skills and enjoy experiences that are usually beyond the means of low-income families – for example, practicing outdoor survival skills at summer camp or learning how to make a sales pitch and track orders at cookie sales training.
“These girls have never experienced anything like this,” says Donovan. “Scouting has the potential to open many doors for them.”
Girl Scouts also offers the girls some stability during a tumultuous time.
“Losing one’s home – or being at risk of losing your home – often takes families by surprise and is especially traumatic for children. Scout activities and outings give the girls something to look forward to and help counterbalance the temporary struggles they’re facing,” Donovan explains.
Brenda Myrick, Director of Social Services at the Family Promise Affiliate in Essex County and a volunteer with that troop, concurs.
“The girls are really enjoying themselves,” she says, but adds that they also encounter challenges Girl Scouts don’t typically face.
“Attendance can be tricky,” says Myrick. “Changes in parents’ work schedules, transportation, child care issues – these are all things that have a big impact on low-income families and can affect whether or not a girl can participate.”
The Family Promise Girl Scouts are excited about their first year of scouting. Among other adventures, they have the opportunity to attend a week-long Girl Scout day camp this summer, with the Girl Scouts organization providing any necessary supplies – bathing suits, sunscreen, even transportation to and from camp. There are also plans to share activities with other local troops.
Now with Girl Scout cookie season in full swing, the Family Promise Girl Scouts are busy ringing doorbells selling S’mores and Thin Mints, with plans to set up cookie booths in Union and Essex counties later this spring.
“I’m so grateful for this opportunity,” the mother of one scout says. “We could never have afforded to do this on our own.”
As Warren, Donovan, and Myrick agree, the variety of experiences Troop 6000 offers young girls can be transformative, but none so much as the relationships they form with one another. One Family Promise Girl Scout sums it up simply: “It’s fun to be a Girl Scout. I met a lot of new friends here.”