Courtesy Van Bramer’s office
Twenty-two girls living in a shelter for homeless families in Long Island City are members of the first Girl Scouts troop for the homeless in the city.
By Bill Parry

The lives of 22 girls living in a Long Island City shelter for homeless families have improved dramatically thanks to a collaborative effort by several concerned adults.

Last month, the girls living at the Sleep Inn Hotel became members of Girl Scout Troop 6000, the first of its kind in New York City, reserved only for homeless girls.

Now, they meet every Friday night in the shelter’s dining room to partake in activities that build their self-esteem and facilitate strong sisterhood bonds that strengthen their networks of support and stability. And they get to eat pizza and watch movies.

“It makes me so happy, because now we do fun stuff and get to meet new friends,” Silkia, a 9-year-old from Woodside, said. “It was a little boring before, but now I have a place to go and do things.”

For 8-year-old Brooklyn, whose family is one of a hundred living at the hotel, Troop 6000 provides sanctuary.

“Before we had nothing. You’d just sit around and watch TV,” she said. “Now we do math and reading, we learn budgeting and we win awards and badges.”

Christina, 8, moved from Brooklyn with her family to join others living at the temporary shelter that is just north of the Queensbridge Houses at 38-71 13th St..

“I like making new friends, that’s very fun,” Christina said. “Before, it was boring and I really didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t know anybody and I had no friends.”

Troop 6000 had its genesis in November when City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) came up with the general idea during a visit to Pam’s Place, a shelter for homeless women in Dutch Kills. As a child, Van Bramer’s family became homeless and had to live in a shelter for six weeks.

“Last November, I joined the Girl Scouts of Greater New York to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter for women in Queens,” Van Bramer said. “It was there that we dreamed of a Girl Scout troop created specifically for homeless girls. With Troop 6000, that dream became a reality.”

The Department of Homeless Services hosted a roundtable with Girl Scout leadership and the recreation directors from 10 shelters citywide. It was agreed and the race was on to form the troop last month as part of Women’s History Month.

“Our partnership with the Girl Scouts is a great example of how collaboration can provide opportunity and programming that boosts self-esteem, promotes teamwork, and demonstrates the importance of ongoing community involvement,” Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said. “These scouts embody the heart, smarts, and spirit of New York, which is fundamentally compassionate, and we look forward to expanding this partnership to other shelters across the city to empower and uplift more young New Yorkers.”

During the roundtable, Giselle Burgess, 32, a community engagement specialist for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, and a leader of a troop in Sunnyside, suggested they form a new troop. Burgess, a single mother of five children, became homeless last summer when the home she rented in Flushing was sold.

Her family ended up living at the Sleep Inn hotel where she started the troop with the help of Sunnyside resident Meredith Maskara, the chief operating officer of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York and a close friend of Van Bramer.

“The idea for a troop for homeless girls had never come up before, so it was a process and DHS has helped me in every way possible,” Burgess said. “The older ones help the younger ones with motivation and courage. They start to feel like they are no longer alone and that’s empowering. But this program is also for the women of the shelter. It gives them a place as well to feel empowered through their otherwise stressful lives. Several of the mothers are training for leadership roles, including one that has a son. She doesn’t even have a daughter and she wanted to be a part of this. It’s an awesome feeling ”

Maskara was on vacation this week, but posted about Troop 6000 on Facebook.

“There are no words. I have never been more proud of the team I work with,” she wrote. “With the support from Jimmy Van Bramer, DHS and incredible women like Giselle Aida Burgess, we will absolutely make the world a better place.”

Van Bramer counts the chartering of Troop 6000 among the best things he has ever been a part of.

“I’ve met the members of Troop 6000, who all live in a shelter in my district, and I can tell you that they have big dreams,” Van Bramer said. “They are our future engineers, fashion designers, athletes, doctors, activists and community leaders. With Troop 6000, these girls now have a place to realize these dreams, find stability, make lifelong friends, and discover the strength they have inside to be whoever they want to be. Troop 6000 is just about the most right thing I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m committed to its expansion all across the city.”

Now that the troop is established, Van Bramer and Burgess know that fund-raising is essential if the program is to be expanded. Donors can go to www.girlscoutsnyc.org/donate.

“With so much wrong in our world, let’s all get behind something so very right,” Van Bramer said.

Burgess, meanwhile, became the first homeless person in New York City to be named to a community board when Borough President Melinda Katz appointed her to CB1 last month.

“It was Jimmy that nominated me,” she said through laughter. “Between my two troops, my five children, my work and now CB1, I’m starting to think I’m going to need more than 24 hours each day.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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