After reading about New York City’s Girl Scout Troop 6000 — which launched in 2016 to serve young girls in housing insecure situations — Jaymes Sime was inspired to offer the program at the emergency shelter he runs in Iowa.
Sime, executive director of MICAH House in Council Bluffs, reached out to Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa, which was on board with replicating the plan. Together, the two established Troop 64224 in February 2018 — a year in which more than 2,700 Iowans experienced homelessness, with 91 percent of them seeking shelter services, according to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The inaugural troop starting selling cookies in their first month of existence. This year alone, the current group has sold nearly 20,000 boxes of cookies in all 50 states — a feat for a troop of about six girls confronting unstable living situations in the middle of a pandemic that has worsened housing inequality. (As CNN reported, their original goal for 2021 had been 1,000 boxes.)
Ongoing unemployment caused by the pandemic could lead to a serious increase in the number of unhoused people over the next few years. Women and children already without permanent housing could be in more precarious positions, given that a typical unsheltered family is composed of a single mother and two children. Black women, in particular, have been disproportionately affected by evictions.
Providing Girl Scouts programs for girls in difficult economic situations like the ones who are part of Troop 64224 has long been a concern of Girl Scouts of the United States, a spokesperson said in a statement: “In a disruptive time like we’re are living in today, it is more important than ever for girls experiencing challenging situations to stay connected to each other with adult support and supervision to feel less alone and more hopeful as part of the Girl Scout community.”
Nicole, a MICAH House resident who fled domestic violence with her two children, said the Girl Scouts programs at the shelter have brought back her young daughter’s confidence. (Nicole asked that she only be identified by her first name because she is a survivor of domestic violence.)
Her daughter was a little bummed out about not continuing her dance classes once they got to MICAH House, Nicole said. But she returned to being her lively self once she became involved with Troop 64224 in January.
The biweekly meetings and cookie sales have also given Nicole a chance to spend one-on-one time with her youngest child, as well as allowed her daughter to be her extroverted self.
“Girl Scouts is great for her,” Nicole said. “I think it’s something that would’ve been good for me had I had it.”
At least six other troops throughout the country serve girls facing some type of hardship that would normally be a barrier to them participating in the program, according to Girl Scouts of America.
A nontraditional troop can encounter unique challenges to participation, such as fluctuating membership and memberships that span months instead of years as families move on to permanent housing, according to Beth Shelton, chief executive of Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa.
Once the girls leave, they are always considered to be part of the troop, and some go on to be part of other troops, she said. For others, obstacles such as transportation to get to meeting sites can make it difficult for girls to continue being active.
Funding and dedicated volunteers like the ones in MICAH House are crucial to ensuring successful troops, especially for girls in need, according to Shelton. About 117 girls have been part of Troop 64224 since it started in 2018.
As Shelton put it: “It unites girls and gives them a sense of pride. Most people really love the cookie program, and the girls get to be at the heart of something. They get to be heroes.”
The Girl Scouts program is one of the few programs for children at MICAH House that was able to continue operating under coronavirus restrictions. The program took a brief pause when the pandemic hit, but the small size has allowed it to continue operating as long as participants and volunteers remain masked and physically distanced, Sime said.
Nicole’s daughter’s magnetic personality prompted a leader of a local nonprofit to message Sime about purchasing more cookies from her after being blown away with her tenacity, Sime said.
“However we can give hope and address trauma, that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “Girl Scouts selling cookies, it does that — it helps reduce the trauma of experiencing homelessness.”