Part 2 of Girl Scouts of America and the Zombie Virus
Part 1, for those who missed it, is the story of my initial shock on hearing of the proposed sale of the Girl Scout camp where I spent some of my childhood and young adult summers and my subsequent dismay at the current state of affairs of the Girl Scout Organization. Part 2 addresses the questionable sale of land and buildings donated to communites for the enjoyment of girls in those communities. Spoiler: There will be no appearances by Zombies in part 2-- theft from the girls is enough of a horror story --but perhaps a visit from beyond the grave by saddened donors will occur.
After an hour and a half of making polite suggestions at the July meeting on “How to Get Girls to Camp,” participants tire of the usual council dodge. Despite the council CEO’s attempts to redirect or cut a question short, they start asking what folks from this area really want to know. How do they get their resident camp sessions back for the girls in their community and what is the council prepared to do to help support their camp?
Not much it turns out. A participant asks if the council could give them a specific goal to meet, and a promise that resident camp will be reinstated if they meet it. The request generates the biggest round of applause of the evening. The CEO’s perky cheerleader demeanor cracks momentarily as she reproaches the crowd, “As far as resident camp is concerned, we have one [Conestoga]… you keep asking me that and I feel that you keep making me say it out loud over and over again… I don’t mean to be mean or direct…right now there’s no resident camp for Tahigwa.”
Much more, in continued reading...
The meeting was held for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa Western Illinois (GSEIWI) council members in Waukon, a short drive away from Camp Tahigwa in the beautiful bluff area of Northeastern Iowa. The frustration was palpable as the Council CEO patronizingly advised members to put on their “thinking caps” and large white sheets of paper were taped to the walls to hold brainstorming ideas. It is a tactic that has been used often with the membership. Keep them on task discussing a safe topic for a couple of hours rather than engaging in any authentic dialogue, and then claim the community was given ample opportunity for input. But this is the community that a week before had held an all-volunteer led, three-day camp event, Camptastic, filled to capacity. They are energized by their success and obviously know a thing or two about getting girls to camp. They love Camp Tahigwa and they are willing to work hard to keep it for the girls in this North-eastern Iowa community.
Built with Cookie Money, Community Resources, and the Goodwill of Communities
Of the four camps in Eastern Iowa that the GSEIWI considered selling earlier this year, Camp L-Kee-Ta was purchased with a gift from the Elks Club, Camp Little Cloud was
purchased and donated by Harry Wahlert, and the first parcel of Camp Conestoga was purchased with money from the Kiwanis and cookie sales. And although the original 275 acres of Camp Tahigwa was acquired by the Conestoga Council, it was Girl Scout volunteers, faculty, and staff from the area community college, and the 389th Army Reserve Engineers Battalion of Decorah that put the hours into construction at the camp. The major funding of a dining lodge at Tahigwa was from memorials made in honor of Bess Hartman Wetheral who had served the Girl Scouts in many capacities, and a new unit was made possible by the Slife family—first as “seed money” given in honor of Polly Slife, and then completed by memorials from the Slife children when their mother Polly and father Harry were tragically killed in a car accident.
Historically, this is how camps were built and maintained across the USA. Workgroups composed of parents, alumnae, and concerned citizens came together for “workdays” at their camps to help repair and maintain the structures, as well as clear out debris. Groups like the Kiwanis, Elks, and the Army Engineers generously donated money and time. Individuals donated land and buildings as memorials for loved ones, or just because they wanted to help make that camp a more beautiful, magical experience. Local Girl Scout Councils used money made from cookie sales to help better the camps.
Camps were indeed gifts of their respective communities for the betterment and enjoyment of the girls in those communities.
Camps Get Written Out of the Master Plan
Sign at Camp Coleman in North-Central Alabama. The proposed sale of Camp Coleman
is currently under re-evaluation.
Although camps were made possible by the generous contributions of communities, they were, of course, run by the individual Girl Scout Councils which had solicited that support. The councils supplied the organizational aspects: sending out camp brochures, registering girls, hiring staff, and using girl generated cookie revenue to fund any difference in what the registrations brought in and the actual cost. Camping was seen as an important program for the girls, and was an integral part of the Girl Scout organization’s identity and mission. After all, it was the organization’s founder, Juliette Gordon Low, who established the first Girl Scout camp and “…envisioned an organization that would combine play, work, and healthy values to shape girls into active, modern women. The group participated in outdoor activities, camping, and sports, attracting girls and women with leadership qualities.”
Around 2003, in what can only be described as a coup at the top spearheaded by CEO Kathy Cloninger and Board Chair Connie Lindsay, the decision was made to completely change the direction of the Girl Scout organization. Cloninger says in her book, Tough Cookies: “And so, in the most sweeping transformation in our hundred-year history, we turned a tradition-bound organization inside out.” Not only did the transformation mean that 330 councils were reduced to 112, but that Cloninger undertook to change the image of the organization from camping and the outdoors to “the premier leadership and go-to organization for girls.”
GSUSA seems to have taken a big virtual eraser to their outdoor and camping program. While change can sometimes be a good thing, it seems problematic to eliminate the very programming that helped create leaders to begin with (two-thirds of female Congress members have been Girl Scouts). Camping is an activity that builds leadership skills. GSUSA is putting the cart before the horse in marketing “leadership” and eliminating camping and outdoor activities.
A read through this year’s GSUSA legislative agendas directed to state and federal lawmakers reveals no mention of camps or the outdoors as important to girls’ wellbeing and leadership potential. Out of the ten blog articles Anna Maria Chavez, the current CEO of GSUSA, has written for the Huffington Post as of this writing, camp and/or camping is mentioned twice. Once as a reference point for an event in 1926, and the second to say that Girl Scouts “are more than cookies, camps and crafts.” In the June 2013 GSUSA President’s Report, there was also no mention of camps. But a line at the tail end of the Girl Scouts Refreshed National Strategy Statement tells us that: A national approach to properties maximizes potential.
The Pendulum Has Swung But Not GSUSA
And just what does that national approach look like? The Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, where Chavez was once a council CEO, may provide the most likely model. There, they are selling off “scout houses” in communities where troops hold their meetings and concentrating on mega centers that provide a long list of amenities including a shop [store front], Wi-Fi access, full-size kitchen, cookie warehouse space, and building security. All fine and good but all these lovely amenities pertain to the main structure itself, not necessarily a camp. Where are amenities like a lake for canoeing or wooded acreage for hiking? The council, which serves 21 counties in Texas, says that, out of the eight currently held properties, only two met their criteria: Sally Cheever Girl Scout Leadership Center and the West Side Girl Scout Leadership Center. Sally Cheever is a big industrial looking building in San Antonio, and West Side is a former elementary school, also in San Antonio. No chance encounters with deer at those places, much less a sleepout under the stars. For the time being they are holding onto Camp Mira Sol for day camp, and for those who want a real camp experience, there is Camp La Jita, where the council website tells us: “you try ‘campy’ things like swimming, making arts and crafts, playing games, eating meals in the dining hall, cooking out, singing camp songs, acting in skits at campfires, learning camp skills, and exploring camp.” Yes, the site uses quotes around “campy” as if it were an antiquated notion.
Across the country the trend is to sell off outdoor camps claiming there is insufficient use, or that they would be too costly to update, and build sterile mega centers near or in urban areas instead. Over 200 Girl Scout camps and properties have been sold or are in danger of being sold since the merger. And though I certainly am not against recruiting more girls into scouting, particularly in urban areas, I don’t feel as though we should be sacrificing one of the Girl Scout organization’s greatest strengths in order to achieve a scheme to increase membership hatched ten years ago.
And while GSUSA continues to push the message that our girls need more exposure to technology, there has been increased awareness in the public of how much we need to “unplug” our children and to get them back into nature. Camp usage nationally has increased as parents strive to do so. In locking themselves into decisions made a decade ago, GSUSA is not only unable to move at the speed of girls (one of their slogans) but may end up losing more girls instead of gaining as parents look for ways to get their kids into nature, and older girls look for something more challenging than sitting in a classroom atmosphere and doing yet more “school work” as the current Journeys program has been repeatedly been described by the membership.
Selling Off the Family Silver
In a story about Juliette Gordon Low it is said that, in 1914, in order keep the Girl Scout program running, she sold a pearl necklace her husband Willie had given her as a wedding present for $8,000. Ironically, GSUSA has now taken the position of encouraging the sell-off of gifts made to its girls, often unique and beautiful properties, bequeathed in good faith to the Girl Scout Council of that community by the generosity of families who lived there for the girls to enjoy, maintain, and conserve. They include places like the magnificent Eagle Island off the coast of New Jersey, gifted by the Graves family in 1937 for use in perpetuity by girls and young women; Camp Anne Jackson in New Hampshire, whose property was given to the Swift Water Council by Patrick Jackson as a memorial to his wife Anne; historic Camp Cooney in Montana, the former summer home of Governor Cooney, and whose property, including a lodge and swimming pool, was deeded to Stevensville Girl Scouts committee by Fred T. and Olive Porch.
The property for Camp El Wa Ho in Fayettesville, Pennsylvania, was donated to the Girl Scouts in 1952 by Eleanor Hoover to be used for a summer camp. It was closed after the local council was merged and then was bought by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in March 2012 for use as a camp for its Young Women's Organizations. It is now being used as camps are intended to be used, just not by the Girl Scouts. A quote from an article about the new owners says “…although the organization's goals are spiritual in nature - helping young Mormon women to ‘draw closer to their Lord Jesus Christ’—the eight stakes who bought the camp also are teaching those teenagers outdoor skills at the same time. Every year participants will have certain outdoor learning goals to meet with an ultimate goal of becoming proficient enough in those outdoor skills to become camp counselors by the time they are 16.”
When the economy was still in the grip of the Great Depression, donations came from "every corner of Cuyahoga County” in Ohio to purchase Camp Crowell Hilaka in 1937. This historic camp has two lakes and a mill with a waterwheel. The purchase of the camp was endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt along with many other prominent people including First Lady Lou Hoover, but its uniqueness is not enough to keep it for the girls in the new council’s “property portfolio.” A Friends of Camp Crowell Hilaka group is currently raising money to try and buy it from the council to reopen as an important local heritage site and use it to promote love of nature through family camping and outdoor skills programs.
Another one-of-a-kind property was Camp Low Country in South Carolina purchased in 1963 with cookie sales money. It was a former rice plantation with extensive frontage on the Cooper River and listed on National Register of Historic Places. The camp was auctioned off at 2.5 million, far below the asking price of 7 million dollars. Now, instead of girls from all income levels enjoying the lovely old-brick manor, guest houses, stables, and carriage houses, it will be owned by hotel and resort developer, Michael Bennett. According to a news story comment: “The girl scout [council] has led to the overall downfall of this camp turning away the help it needed when it was given or offered by girl scouts or other organizations within the community. I know Bob Villa offered to completely repair the manor house after hugo & to this day it is still in shambles unfortunately.”
Donor Intent Ignored Across the Country
How can a memorial gift to the Council be sold wondered one neighbor of Camp Anne Jackson. It is an excellent question. The camps exist because of the countless donations, time, and efforts of communities, yet they are being sold despite outcries from those communities. Offers of assistance have been completely disregarded in some cases. The Girl Scouts of the Heart of New Jersey, which gained possession of the beautiful, historic Eagle Island after the consolidation, closed and then listed the camp with realtors and refused offers by Friends of Eagle Island to purchase it as well as offers by them to work collaboratively to reopen it. Friends of Eagle Island continues to work through legal channels to gain back control and use the Island as intended by the Graves Family. Plaintiffs in the Eagle Island lawsuit include Henry D. Graves, great grandson of the original camp donors.
It is often claimed that councils are being fiscally responsible in selling the camps, but that cannot explain sales like Camp Tomlin in Oregon. The camp, started in 1960 with a bequest of $20,000 from John Tomlin who wanted a place for the scouts to go and whose operating cost ran a meager $800 per year, was axed this year. And while perhaps it could be argued that proceeds from the sale of Camp Tomlin will go to other programming, how can the proposed closing of Camp Latonka in Missouri be explained--a beautiful, popular camp on waterfront property that is owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who leases the land to the Girl Scouts for one dollar, yes you read that right, one dollar per year.
The only sense that can be made of any of these sales is the shift in priorities at the National level and the influence of National on the individual new regional councils. What has made the shedding of the camps even easier is that the original councils in the communities that built the camps no longer have much say or influence. In fact, most no longer exist.
Gerrymandering the Girl Scout Camps
When GSUSA decided to merge their councils, they claimed to have gone by girl population. The new councils however now often cover bi- and tri-state areas, causing severe conflicts of interest. Complaints imply that program money is now going to run centers and to create super camps in or near urban centers, and camps in the outlying communities are the ones being sold. A troop leader and day care director at Camp Tomlin says that Tomlin and another camp in Southern Oregon were unfairly targeted after councils merged to form the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington and that the camp was on a “hit list” of camps the new council wanted to close or abandon.
The sale and closure of camps in Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes Council generated these messages to the Save Our Girl Scout Camps on Facebook page (messages not publicly accessible): “They are selling off a lot of property across the council so they can provide for the girls in Green Bay – basically,” “Yeah. The people around here are ticked because they expect their donations to stay in the area and support the local girls, but instead it all goes to Green Bay. We're sick of being shafted,” and “This is OUR camp. Ever since the new council took over, it went from having high attendance to having none. We think they just want to run attendance down so they can sell the property and leave the entire northwestern chunk of Wisconsin Girl Scouts without a camp.”
Councils in Indiana were chopped up and recombined to include Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. Camp Wildwood, which is located in Vincennes, Indiana, was “given” to the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois after the merger, who then attempted to sell it. A fight over the camp ensued, and in a recent ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court, the camp was returned to local control. Community groups in Vincennes have plans of turning it into a youth camp for the community.
Communities Coming Together to Keep Their Camps and Land
Other communities that recognize the value of undeveloped wilderness have also come together to purchase the “unwanted” Girl Scout camps (or repurchase if you consider that the communities donated money for the purchase of the camps to begin with in many cases). Two examples are:
Friends of Camp Little Notch in New York successfully conserved their property through a relationship with the Open Space Institute (OSI) and are in the process of purchasing a portion of the land from OSI.
Camp Cornish in Mount Vernon, Ohio, was retired by the Girl Scout Council there, but then formed a partnership with the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon who purchased the camp but will still give the Girl Scouts access 35 days of the year. Boy Scouts and other nonprofits will have access the remainder of the year.
Can We Put a Stop to the Theft?
Looking at all the camps that GSUSA has lost since the realignment, and noting the consistent patterns that the process has taken across the country, it is hard to believe that it is anything but an effort by GSUSA to take the “outing out of scouting” and replace it with some rather bland and generic programming in the hope it will appeal to more girls. Unfortunately, I fear that it has already had the opposite effect. Disgusted with the less than honest tactics of the organization, thousands of members have already left. The sale of camps to raise money for salaries, new buildings, and undefined leadership programming in the more populated portions of councils at the expense of outlying communities is nothing less than theft from those communities and girls, and an insult to those who left their land in good faith as a lasting memorial to a loved one.
If volunteers and other groups can run camps successfully, and communities are willing to fight to keep them for their families and future youth, then camping and the outdoors are obviously still important and valued. It is very sad that GSUSA refuses to fight to keep the camps intact for its own membership. There are movements currently to wake GSUSA up to the value of the outdoors. One group is “an active volunteer group who realize the importance of adding more OFFICIAL Outdoor Programs to GSUSA” and has proposed adding an Outdoor Journey Book to the other Journey books the troops use during the year. Another is “Take a Hike, Save a Camp” initiated by the Friends of Eagle Island groups and occurring around the country in October to bring attention to the plight of the Girl Scout camps.
There is still hope that the organization might finally take notice, realize they already had an excellent program in their camps, and begin helping the councils find ways of saving them.
As a participant at the Camp Tahigwa Meeting in July put it: “We want more support…if we’re running Camptastic as Friends of Tahigwa and not as the Girl Scouts, then we might as just buy it ourselves. But we want that connection, we want that closeness with the Girl Scouts, and we want to be supported.”