On January 15 NYLAG celebrated Martin Luther King Day with 48 girl scouts from Troop 6000, the first-ever troop created for homeless girls living in shelters across New York City.

The scouts, ranging in age from 11 – 17 years old, participated in a Career Day sponsored by UJA Federation of New York. It was a suitable tribute to Martin Luther King given his affinity for the Girl Scouts, an organization he called “a force for desegregation” because of its leadership in moving to desegregate all troops in the 1950s.

“Dr. King left us with such a rich legacy from which we can all learn. First, he believed that we should constantly ask ourselves what we are doing to serve others. Each of the three organizations here today embraces service — day in and day out,” said Caprice Jenerson, Director of NYLAG’s Pro Bono and Volunteer Unit. “Dr. King also believed that every person should be afforded the opportunity to become whatever she or he chooses to become. And that’s what this career day is ultimately about: to encourage each Girl Scout in the room to dream big and work hard to make those dreams a reality.”

Troop 6000 was founded last year by Giselle Burgess, a community engagement specialist at the Girl Scouts of Greater New York who became homeless herself in 2016 when her landlord sold the building she lived in with her five children. She started Troop 6000 in the Queens shelter where she and her daughters eventually moved as a way to bring the scouting experience to girls whose living circumstances make it difficult for them to get involved.

Burgess’ inspiration caught the attention of City Hall, which has since provided funding to dramatically expand the troop to as many as 500 girls scouts living in shelters. (There are approximately 8,000 girls of scout age currently living in New York’s homeless shelter system.) All scout meetings will be led by trained troop leaders – women also living in the shelter system. Participants will be able to attend meetings at any shelter knowing that they are all already part of the same welcoming troop.

NYLAG’s decision to serve Troop 6000 was no coincidence. Legal staff and pro bono volunteers serve many New Yorkers who are experiencing homelessness.  Each year tens of thousands of homeless adults and families are denied emergency shelter by the NYC Department of Homeless Services for reasons that are often complex and difficult to address without legal assistance. NYLAG’s Shelter Advocacy Initiative provides advice, advocacy, and representation during the shelter intake and appeal processes to help clients gain access to emergency shelter and, once in shelter, ensure they receive the services they need.

The MLK Career Day began with breakfast for the scouts and a cadre of UJA volunteers, as well as attorneys, law students and NYLAG staff. This was followed by activities designed to help the girls think creatively about how they can chart their own future course and reach their full potential. Volunteers helped them create collages to depict their aspirations, and played a networking game to bring to life the important role that others play in helping us achieve our goals.

A panel of four women, including NYLAG attorney Fulvia Vargas and paralegal Mira Martinez, shared their own stories of following their dreams and building rewarding careers. When it was time for questions a dozen hands shot up, with scouts asking about everything from how to cope with bullying to their fears about leaving home for the first time to go to college.

Martinez urged the girls to “try everything and get out of your comfort zone” and described how she took community classes in Japanese and astronomy while she was still in high school and later went on to teach English overseas and travel extensively. Vargas remembered being the first in her family to go to college and the terrifying moments of self-doubt she felt as prepared to take the bar exam: “There will be hard times, so just tell yourself it can’t rain forever.”

The scouts themselves had a wonderful time, listening, learning and speaking up about what Troop 6000 means in their lives.

As 12-year-old Karina put it, “We create this connection, to love and care for each other and to know that we are stronger than we think no matter what is happening in our personal lives. We can be leaders at any age.”