Troop 6000

The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World

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The inspiring true story of the first Girl Scout troop founded for and by girls living in a shelter in Queens, New York, and the amazing, nationwide response that it sparked

“A powerful book full of powerful women.”—Chelsea Clinton

Giselle Burgess was a young mother of five trying to provide for her family. Though she had a full-time job, the demands of ever-increasing rent and mounting bills forced her to fall behind, and eviction soon followed. Giselle and her kids were thrown into New York City’s overburdened shelter system, which housed nearly 60,000 people each day. They soon found themselves living at a Sleep Inn in Queens, provided by the city as temporary shelter;  for nearly a year, all six lived in a single room with two beds and one bathroom. With curfews and lack of amenities, it felt more like a prison than a home, and Giselle, at the mercy of a broken system, grew fearful about her family’s future. She knew that her daughters and the other girls living at the shelter needed to be a part of something where they didn’t feel the shame or stigma of being homeless, and could develop skills and a community they could be proud of. Giselle had worked for the Girl Scouts and had the idea to establish a troop in the shelter, and with the support of a group of dedicated parents, advocates, and remarkable girls, Troop 6000 was born.

New York Times journalist Nikita Stewart settled in with Troop 6000 for more than a year, at the peak of New York City’s homelessness crisis in 2017, getting to know the girls and their families and witnessing both their triumphs and challenges. In Troop 6000, readers will feel the highs and lows as some families make it out of the shelter while others falter, and girls grow up with the stress and insecurity of not knowing what each day will bring and not having a place to call home, living for the times when they can put on their Girl Scout uniforms and come together. The result is a powerful, inspiring story about overcoming the odds in the most unlikely of places.

Stewart shows how shared experiences of poverty and hardship sparked the political will needed to create the troop that would expand from one shelter to fifteen in New York City, and ultimately inspired the creation of similar troops across the country. Woven throughout the book is the history of the Girl Scouts, an organization that has always adapted to fit the times, supporting girls from all walks of life.

Troop 6000 is both the intimate story of one group of girls who find pride and community with one another, and the larger story of how, when we come together, we can find support and commonality and experience joy and success, no matter how challenging life may be.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Troop 6000

1

“Queens People of the Week”

Hailey smoothed down her wavy hair and tried not to be nervous. She was thirteen and it was a big deal, being on television. If you lived in New York and had cable, the city’s twenty-four-hour news channel, NY1, was the first thing you saw when you turned on the TV. Hailey took another deep breath and thought about what she might say to the interviewer. The butterflies in her stomach danced the way they did every year on the first day of school.

It was a Wednesday in July 2016, and the humidity was so high that her hair, which she’d combed into a half-up, half-down style, had turned into a sort of billowing Afro in the back. It was puffier than she had planned. Hailey told herself that was okay because no one could see the back, right? She sat perched on the edge of the brown leather sofa in the lobby of Pam’s Place, a homeless shelter for single women in Long Island City, Queens, tugging at her khaki Girl Scouts vest to straighten it. Then the reporter, a friendly brown-haired woman whose calm voice helped put Hailey at ease, started asking her questions. The camera zoomed in and out on Hailey’s face. Although her thirteen-year-old body had grown into an adult one seemingly overnight—a fact that she hated because now men and boys stared at her and sometimes made rude remarks—her baby face was unchanged, and when she smiled, as she did now, it lit up, looking almost cherubic.

Months earlier, in November, her troop, the Girl Scouts of Sunnyside & Woodside, had served a Thanksgiving lunch to the women who lived at Pam’s Place. Now Hailey, her sisters Karina and Christina, and the rest of their troop—who were always doing community service, volunteering to clean up a park or to bring cheer to children with chronic illnesses—had returned to Pam’s Place as part of Operation Cookie, a service project that allowed customers to buy the coveted cookies and donate to people whose spirits needed lifting, like veterans, military personnel, senior citizens, and people experiencing homelessness. The Scouts then delivered the cookies. A couple of reporters, including the one who was sitting across from her now, showed up to cover the event. The troop had picked Hailey to represent them on camera that day. Her mother, Giselle, was a leader of the troop and worked as a community development specialist for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, so even though Hailey had been a Scout for only two and a half years, she knew a lot about Scouting and the history of the organization. And although she was a little shy, which may not have made her an obvious choice as a public representative, she was thoughtful and affable.

“People do so much for us and the least we can do is do something for them,” Hailey told the reporter. She blinked, paused, and then smiled as she tried to think of what else to say. “The women in the shelter have experienced many hardships and are really struggling. To see us come in and do all these things for them really makes their day.”

After the interview, NY1 collected footage of Hailey standing with her sisters in their Girl Scout vests. Within the Scouts, girls were organized based on grades in school. Hailey’s khaki vest indicated that she was an older Scout; she was going into the eighth grade and was a Cadette. Karina, who was approaching her eleventh birthday, would be a fifth grader, so she wore the green vest of a Junior Girl Scout. Christina’s vest was brown; at seven years old she would start second grade in the fall, which made her a Brownie. All three of them tried not to look at the camera as they handed out Thin Mints and Samoas and Do-si-dos, but they couldn’t help it. It was television, after all, and they were going to be on it.

Two days later, on Friday, the sisters and their younger siblings, Gillesy and Judas, who were two and three, gathered in their grandmother’s living room to watch the segment. “Giving back is a way of life for thirteen-year-old Hailey Vicente,” the reporter narrated as Hailey’s face appeared on the flat-screen TV that hung on the wall of the cramped apartment where her mother, Giselle, had grown up. The apartment never got a lot of natural light but the dimness made it cozy and familiar, and on that day, with everyone piled into the living room, squeezing onto the worn faux leather couch, it felt especially homey. They were all there—Hailey’s mother, sisters, and brother, along with Evelyn and Manny, Giselle’s mother and stepfather, and Mateo and Miranda, Giselle’s half brother and half sister—and all were proud of Hailey for speaking so eloquently about helping people who did not have homes of their own. The segment was called “Queens People of the Week,” and for the one minute and forty-five seconds that it played, Hailey and her mother and siblings forgot about their secret. Few people outside the family knew about it, certainly not the girls’ classmates, not even the Scouts who had helped them give out cookies at Pam’s Place.

And if the nice reporter from NY1 had for some inexplicable reason asked Hailey about it, Hailey would have lied to her.

The secret was that Hailey and her family were homeless, too.

The eviction had happened just days before the television interview.

Even though the description in court records read “forcible entry/detainer,” nobody had beaten down any doors or strong-armed their way in. Giselle had known this moment was coming for at least two months, and she’d opened her apartment door without protest to allow her landlord and the marshal entry. The day before, she’d explained to her five children what was about to take place.

“Mommy has some bad news,” she said, talking more to the youngest three, Christina, Gillesy, and Judas, than to Hailey and Karina. “Unfortunately, we can’t stay here anymore. The owner needs us to leave. I tried to find a new house, but it’s hard and I don’t have enough money or anyone to help us find a home.”

Hailey could see that toddler Gillesy and preschooler Judas had no idea what was happening, and that seven-year-old Christina was confused, too.

Giselle was trying hard not to cry. Her voice quavered but she willed herself to keep talking as if this wasn’t a terrible thing. She said they were going to a homeless shelter, just for a short time, until they could figure out their next move. “It will be scary because it’s something different and new, but we won’t be there long, and I promise we will make it fun.”

Giselle smiled, like she often did to hide her emotions.

Fun? Hailey thought. What about losing their home could possibly be fun?

As the firstborn, Hailey was her mother’s right hand; her name was tattooed alongside an angel on Giselle’s arm. While she challenged her mother inwardly, she could see that Giselle was not only upset but scared. She kept her head down and started packing.

When the landlord and the marshal arrived the next morning, Giselle had already packed her clothes and was stuffing throw pillows and photo albums into thin black garbage bags. She wasn’t crying—thank goodness for that, because if she had started crying her children would have, too—but Hailey could tell that she was just barely keeping it together. It was Hailey and Karina’s job to finish clearing out the kitchen. The day before, Giselle had bought moving boxes at a nearby Home Depot, and now Hailey worked to fill them as quickly and purposefully as she could, even though her chest was so tight she was having trouble breathing and her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might explode. Karina, never big on doing chores but always eager to obey, was working especially slowly, methodically transferring red plastic bowls from the kitchen’s cabinets to the boxes. Hailey noticed that she kept staring off blankly into space. Christina, Judas, and Gillesy were unusually quiet, dutifully gathering extraneous belongings that did not have a designated box.

They all paused when the landlord showed up with the marshal, who had the kind of skin that didn’t tan but instead burned; he was red-faced after days spent hovering over families as they dragged mattresses and sofas onto the street in the summer sun.

“You have to vacate the premises,” he told Giselle.

Giselle was moving as fast as she could. She had rented a nearby storage unit for $160 a month. She figured she would need it for only a month or two, maybe three, until she had saved enough money for a deposit and then found an apartment. Under the extreme duress of eviction, Giselle had already been looking for an apartment. She thought that maybe if she could take her time now, she might be able to find one that she could afford.

“Can I please have a few more hours to get my things out? I have people coming to help me move.”

“You gotta get your bags and leave now,” the marshal said, but then he shrugged and gestured to the landlord to see if there was any leeway. “It’s up to him.”

The landlord nodded okay.

A little while later some men from the storage company arrived to take the furniture and boxes to the warehouse. The marshal left once they pulled up, but the landlord stayed, walking around the apartment, monitoring the family as they packed up the pieces of their lives.

- About the author -

Nikita Stewart is a reporter covering social services for The New York Times. The Newswomen’s Club of New York recognized Stewart in 2018 for her coverage of homelessness, mental health, and poverty. She has been a finalist for the Livingston Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. She joined The New York Times in 2014 after working at The Washington Post.

More from Nikita Stewart

Troop 6000

The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World

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Troop 6000

— Published by Ballantine Books —