Washington’s first Boy Scout troop in homeless shelters is back in business
BURIEN – It’s cold and windy and half a dozen girls are standing outside a family homeless shelter in Mary’s Place, trying to keep warm in hopes of some cookie customers.
Their folding table, covered with brightly colored cardboard boxes, has seen little movement so far, but many cars pass beneath them on a busy Burien thoroughfare.
For many members of Troop 40103, Washington’s first homeless shelter, this is their first exposure to the economic ups and downs of selling Girl Scout Cookies. Regular Boy Scout rituals like the spring fundraiser can take on greater meaning for this squad as they navigate schoolwork and friendships while also confronting the insecurities that homelessness brings.
Nevaeh Younger, 15, the eldest of the group, grabs a small sign that reads “Girl Scout Cookies” as two younger members follow her toward the street. One of the little ones carries a red box of tagalongs in one hand and green thin mints in the other.
Standing on the sidewalk, the Girl Scouts wave their arms, hold up the cookie boxes and pray for more people to move in.
Soon they will.
A red Hyundai pulls off the road and pulls into the girls’ drive-through hall and then into another car. The squad leaders cheer every time.
“You guys are doing great!” one of them yells. “Keep it up!”
Before living at the shelter, Carleigh Lawrence said Girl Scouts were never an option for her daughter because there were fees to be paid. But at Mary’s Place these fees are waived.
Sure, the troupe does some things differently — the girls walk down the hall from the single rooms they share with their families, past the shared bathrooms and showers, to attend meetings — but a lot of things look exactly the same.
The troupe recently built paper mache bird feeders and hot air balloons. They go on trips and sell cookies. At a recent gathering there was much giggles and members sitting side by side, leaning on each other and whispering secrets.
And for members, the sense of community, responsibility and routine that the force brings is comfort. Something to be proud of.
Since 2016, Mary’s Place, one of the largest nonprofits serving homeless families in the area, has hosted its own Boy Scout troop at the shelter.
“When it comes to empowering young people, especially young women, and you already have a platform like Girl Scouts, it just made sense to bring the two things together,” said Tanita Horton, one of the founding directors and staff at the shelter, who bis is there today.
COVID-19 hit during the Troupe’s 2020 cookie sale. It forced the force to go into hibernation as the shelter and its staff faced a host of new safety concerns and measures.
Horton’s daughter Damira Tullis and other Mary’s Place associates re-established the troupe in 2022.
The first cookie sale since the pandemic will take place this spring. The members aim to raise enough money to go camping. For every $6 box sold, the squad earns 75 cents, so they’re busy.
If they go through with their plan, Karina Lawrence knows exactly what she wants to do out in the woods: stargazing.
The 13-year-old would like to work for NASA one day. She told her mother she wanted to be the first multiracial woman in space.
Talking about how much people don’t know about outer space, its vastness and its beauty brought tears to Karina’s eyes on Thursday.
“Sometimes I just like to go outside and look at the stars,” Karina said. Ever since her family moved from Texas to Washington, her mother’s home state, they’ve been living at the shelter to help them start over.
Her mother, Carleigh, recently found work serving food at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cafeteria. She hopes that Karina and her younger brothers will soon be able to call a house with their new job.
Until then, the family has stored away their belongings.
If the troupe can earn enough for this camping trip, Karina said she’ll stop by the storage unit first so she can bring her telescope.
Karina has only been with Girl Scouts for a few weeks, and it is already teaching them leadership and the importance of taking care of others and helping to set a good example for the younger members.
“It feels like we’re needed,” she said.
“I feel safe,” added another member.
When you live in a family shelter there is not much you can control, some of the senior Scouts pointed out. Breakfast starts at 5am. The showers are running out of hot water. And on Saturdays you can’t sleep in, because it’s mat day, when sleeping mats are taken out of the rooms to be cleaned.
Sometimes Boy Scouts don’t stay long, and the composition of the troupe is constantly changing.
“It’s a very different dynamic than most troops,” Horton said.
The force is still working on the kinks since it restarted during the pandemic.
Families have been staying in Mary’s Place shelters for extended periods since eviction protection ended, spokeswoman Linda Mitchell said. Previously the average was 87 days, now it’s 105 days, she said.
It has become more difficult for families to find suitable, permanent options to move into as the need for temporary housing and rental support has increased. Some of the Girl Scouts have been living at the Burien site for six months.
Most of the families that Mary’s Place helps come from South King County, Mitchell said, where people who earn less have been pushed further afield as Seattle has become more expensive.
During the pandemic, research by the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley found that the King County neighborhoods facing the highest rates of “housing shortages” — the risk of losing their current homes — were almost all south of Interstate 90.
And these places have fewer homeless resources.
“Calls to our intake line are higher than ever,” Mitchell said. When families stay longer in the emergency shelter, it means there are fewer rooms available for other needy people.
To practice ahead of their first official cookie sale, squad leaders set up a practice run inside the shelter’s walls on Wednesday.
Every sale they make is together, as a group.
Girls crowded around the table in the busy corridor. Some small children passed by. An employee squeezed past with a mop bucket.
A handful of sales were made that evening as the shelter’s patrons hung out their evening, pushing babies into strollers to keep them entertained or heading down to the dining room for dinner.
At the sale the next day, Nevaeh estimated that her family of seven lived in a tree-shaded corner room at the Burien shelter for a year.
Nevaeh lost track of how many schools she was enrolled in because she was homeless. Before Mary’s Place, her family lived in motels or sometimes crammed into their vehicle.
Mary’s Place helped them find permanent housing about two months ago.
“I actually cried when we had to leave[the shelter],” she said.
Because there are good people, like her squad leaders, who make her feel supported and cared for, she said. She points to a pair of white lace-up shoes on her feet – something they gave her as a gift.
That’s why she wants to be with the Girl Scouts at the shelter.