Local Girl Scouts tackle homelessness

Rewards go far beyond multi-month effort

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

In the spring of 2017, a local Girl Scout troop began an almost year-long project aimed at helping the homeless in their community. While the process garnered the troop a Bronze Award as part of the Girl Scout's Take Action Project, the girls were motivated by more than the award. The rewards of their project extended far beyond their troop's multi-month volunteer effort.

Troop member Audrey Benzkofer says members were brainstorming about service projects and quickly focused on two alternatives: helping an animal shelter and helping people experiencing homelessness. 

"We figured that helping people was looking at a bigger problem in the world," Benzkofer said. "It felt right."

Troop leader Beth Houle, whose daughter Vivienne Pope is a troop member, says the girls were motivated by their encounters with people in Oak Park. 

"Some of the troop members had seen homeless people in the library, on Lake Street and around town," Beth Pope said. "We wanted to come up with different ways to help them."

Some of the scouts, like Benzkofer, had volunteered with their families with local organizations such as Housing Forward, but the girls still had many questions about homelessness in the community. 

Houle says they took a white-board approach and brainstormed about things they wanted to learn about homelessness and the best way to help people who are homeless.

In the end, they came up with a list of 26 questions, ranging from "Can babies be homeless?" to "Why does it seem like we see more men than women who are homeless?"

Education

Armed with their list of questions, the troop embarked on several months of field trips to various area nonprofits that support people who are homeless, provide affordable housing or chronicle the fair housing movement. 

They visited Housing Forward, the overnight shelter at First United Church, the Oak Park Residence Corp. and the Oak Park Historical Society.

"Every field trip, the girls asked questions and got more answers." Pope said. "We learned that people experiencing homelessness can be on different paths and have different situations. One path might be someone who is on the street, another situation is someone who is in a shelter, and a third path is someone transitioning out of homelessness who might be moving into an apartment but still needs resources."

Houle describes the continuum of homelessness as ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being a person who is newly homeless and probably feeling desperate and alone with few supports; a 5 being someone who is using services such as overnight shelters, food assistance and job training; and 10 being a person who might be getting a job or transitioning into a home of their own. She says, 

"We wanted to be of assistance to all of these stages," Houle said.

Service projects

The troop embarked on a series of three service project to address three different stages on of homelessness. They created care packages for people experiencing homelessness who were living on the streets. 

The care packages contained wool socks, hand warmers, lip balm, dental hygiene items and a Streetcard listing local service providers for people who are homeless.

Inspired by one of their fifth-grade teachers at Beye School, who shared the idea of a kindness card with her students, the troop also included a kindness card in each package. 

"We were worried that they might not feel like they were a part of the world, that people didn't see them," Pope said. "We thought they might need a pick-me-up."

Benzkofer says this project was one of her favorites. 

"I feel like people who suddenly become homeless and don't know what to do need help," she said. "Getting items to make them more comfortable and learning about resources and feeling love from the community is the first step towards getting people to eventually get into homes."

For people in the second stage, who might be using services such as overnight shelters, the troop assembled breakfast for 80 people and delivered it to the First United overnight shelter. 

Again, the girls sought thought of small ways to deliver kindness with the food they delivered.

"It was a couple of days after Easter, so we dyed eggs to try to make people happy," Vivienne Pope said.

Houle says that when the troop delivered the food to the shelter, it was eye-opening for the girls. 

"When they delivered the food, it was at dinner time, when people are entering the shelter," Houle said. "The girls got a sense of who was there, who needed shelter."

For Vivienne Pope, it brought to light another aspect of homelessness: it affects everyone. 

"There was a kid my age," she said. "I didn't really realize that kids my age could be homeless."

For the third stage, transitioning to homes, the troop assembled "House to Home" kits that are provided to recently homeless people who are moving into an apartment. 

The troop collected over 50 items needed to help someone set up a home. Houle notes that in the past, the troop had donated some of their profits from selling Girl Scout cookies to a House to Home kit, and this year, they used the profits to purchase soft bedding for an apartment.

The girls also collected items such as kitchen supplies and bedroom necessities with donations from neighbors and friends.

This May, the troop received their Bronze Award pins, commemorating their completion of the service project, but the rewards go far beyond the pin. 

"When you're walking around and see homeless people, it can seem unsolvable," said Stephan Benzkofer, Audrey's father. "The emphasis of this project was that this is a person, who just happens to be homeless. Recognizing that they are just like us is a big step."

Audrey Benzkofer says learning about the different organizations who help the homeless and participating showed her there is hope for the future.

"This is one of the big problems of the world, and if people can work together, they can help solve it," she said.

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