Late one June evening, the clouds parted over upstate New York, revealing the kind of star-studded sky that city-dwellers never see. Ushered by their counselors, the Girl Scouts of Camp Kaufmann emerged from their tents to take it in.
For a few of the girls, the nighttime spectacle was an unusually rare treat. They were part of Troop 6000, the country’s first Girl Scouts troop for young women experiencing homelessness.
This summer, hundreds of Troop 6000 girls will take weekend trips upstate to 425 acres of maple-oak forested hills. At Camp Kaufmann, they will sleep in tents, swim, hike, row boats, learn archery, and do ropes courses together. Since camp started on June 1st, 36 girls ages 13 to 17 from Troop 6000 have spent a weekend, with a few moms tagging along to volunteer.
Camp weekends involve a lot of firsts for city girls. Many of them have never slept in the woods, or jumped in a pond, or even made s’mores. At Kaufmann, they do all that and more, from making fires to scaling climbing walls.
“What Girl Scouting is doing for these girls and for the women involved is empowering people in a pretty powerless situation,” says Karen Lundgard, COO of Girl Scouts of Greater New York. “If you can stand up in front of hundreds of people and sing a silly song and wave your hands, you can stand up in front of a board room one day.”
Troop 6000 formed in 2017 when a Girl Scouts employee, Giselle Burgess, moved into a shelter with her daughters and saw the kids’ need for a reliable community. In the year since, the program has grown from the initial 32 scouts to include hundreds of girls. With a city partnership, expanded staff, concerted fundraising efforts, and a waitlist of shelters seeking to participate, executives say they are well on track for their end-of-year commitment to getting 500 girls across the city enrolled in Troop 6000. Similar troops for girls in shelters have sprouted in Chicago, Nashville, and San Antonio.
The New York troop crushed its first season of cookie sales this year, blowing their 6,000-box goal out of the water by selling over 30 thousand boxes. Camp was the logical next step.
“For a girl who has 100 percent grown up in the city, it can be a drastic change,” says Meridith Maskara, CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater New York. The division is the only one in the country that serves an exclusively urban population, so acclimating girls to the outdoors is an essential step. Many of them spend time in Central Park or canoe the East River together. Troops go to Urban Day Camp or take day trips to Camp Kaufmann before getting the overnight outdoors experience.
“When it starts to get dark, they’re asking a lot of questions: ‘Where’s my flashlight? I need it immediately. Am I going to encounter animals? Are the bugs coming out?’” Lundgard says. But by Saturday afternoon, they don’t even care about putting on bug spray.
Last summer, when Troop 6000 was only 32 girls, the group went on an exclusive overnight camping trip. This year, Girl Scouts from shelters will attend camp with other troops from all over the city. They’ll learn Leave No Trace principles, basic first aid and safety, and how to use and pack gear. In August, all of Troop 6000 and their families will come together for a finale weekend at Camp Kaufmann. “The idea is then for them to bring all of this back to their community,” Maskara says.
The more the girls learn and share, the more they’ll feel connected to the land. That, leaders say, is good for both them and the earth. “We know that a girl who understands her own impact on the environment and gains a better understanding of it is more likely to love being outdoors and to be an advocate for it,” Lundgard says.