Outside her office, standing on a covered porch that overlooks the rolling grounds of Camp Coleman, Laura Elliot said she’s happy to be back.
Elliot served as camp director for 25 years before the 2012 council decision to sell Coleman, along with three other Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama (GSNCA) camps. This spring, under the leadership of the pro-camp Board President Sarah Edwards, the council voted to rescind that property plan and find a sustainable means of operating camps, and GSNCA asked Elliot to return to the Scouts.
To some, the return of Elliot is sign of a shift within the GSNCA council. For one, Elliot oversees operations at all camps as the senior director of programming facilities, working with the council, board, membership and volunteers. Previously, her role as camp director meant that she oversaw the daily operations solely of Camp Coleman, with each of the other camps operating under their own directors. While Elliott’s new position is, in part, one born out of necessity — because the council voted to close the four camps, there was no 2014 budget for the operations of those camps — it is also an offshoot of the council’s push for operational change and transparency.
That transparency is a top priority to interim CEO Melva Tate and Edwards, who are both working in the wake of an onslaught of GSNCA resignations, including both the former CEO and past board president, that followed a yearlong pro-camp grassroots uprising among the membership.
Nationally, the Girl Scouts have faced criticism for closed-door decisions and questionable motivations. In recent years, as tight-knit, locally controlled councils merged into large, multi-county councils, volunteers say they felt out of touch with the Scouts. Cookie sales increased. Memberships declined. When the timing of the push for camp property sales coincided with organizational pension troubles, red flags arose across troops and garnered national news attention with headlines like “Sales of Campsites Throw Girl Scouts into Turmoil.”
But locally, the turmoil has passed, according to Edwards, who led that grassroots movement in GSNCA before being elected to the board. “We’re very optimistic about what’s going on. … At this year’s annual meeting, we honored 119 volunteers, and while the membership still had questions about property, the mood was very, very positive.” That mood differs greatly from last year, when the grassroots members surprised the council by electing 11 supporters to the board and police ousted media from the grounds of the Gardendale church that housed the meeting.
Edwards credits the rescinding of the property plan and the push for transparency for the shift in local membership. “The camps are open for use for people to go troop camping but not resident camping [which is a fully staffed camp]. Anyone can go to the camps. We don’t provide any services other than water, beds, the basics. We’re finding out that people are enjoying that,” Edwards said.
Now, other Girl Scout councils across the U.S. are looking to central Alabama for guidance. Jane Duax of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois said members across the U.S. use Facebook to track what GSNCA members are doing to “bring camps back from the brink.”
Under new leadership and with the support of loyal volunteers, the GSNCA is primed to be the council in the U.S. that forges a new path for the Scouts, preserving long-held traditions, shedding outdated practices.
Re-opening the camps
By May 15 this year, exactly one year after four GSNCA camps were scheduled to be closed, more than 500 girls had visited camps for summer programming. Those girls, Edwards said, are there thanks to the volunteers who are tackling repairs and routine maintenance.
Recently, GSNCA released a report that cites a total of $27,194 in total repairs for all of the formerly closed camps to operate at “a basic level of service,” or service without programming like horseback riding or high ropes courses. The repairs included basic maintenance and supplies (garbage bags, toilet paper, smoke detectors). The items pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs that a 2011 report cited as necessary for the camps to be operational; the numbers in that report were used to justify the closing of the camps. Under old leadership, volunteer requests to conduct repairs on the camps were denied.
“We’re working with these groups of volunteers, and they’re fabulous,” Elliot said. “Having this kind of collaboration with membership is key. We don’t have the staff [because] the budget was written thinking the camps were going to be closed.” Elliot said that Scout volunteers have always been active, but after the near loss of camps, members are wholeheartedly committed to seeing the camps succeed.
“We have created some committees to work with the camps. The people who love that camp have volunteered to be in charge of that camp’s workday and are finding the materials to make those days possible,” Edwards said. Workdays bring members out for routine maintenance. Volunteers also run the daily operations, opening the site for visitors and coordinating with the council.
Despite the surge of volunteers, the Scouts nationally are suffering from declining membership numbers, and those losses are reflected in the local membership as well, Tate said. Last year, GSNCA had 15,626 girl members and 4,777 adult members. So far this year, they’re reporting 13,187 girls and 4,052 adults.
“So,” Tate asked, “How can we move forward without falling back on the traditional resources that we relied on in the past and exhausted over time?”
Keeping camps open
Traditional resources for Girl Scouts means one thing: cookie money. The sale of Do-si-dos and Samoas generates $790 million a year, according to GSUSA. Locally, cookie sales average $6 million per year. The debate over misuse of cookie money is ongoing as members wonder why fees for programming rise. For GSNCA, Edwards wants to see more than half the revenue from cookie sales go directly to support “older girl opportunities or support of the pathways members, to create a fund to keep our properties in optimum condition.”
In the past, Edwards said that outside community groups — churches, other nonprofits — used programming on Scout property for team building exercises, generating revenue for the camps. “The ropes course at Coleman is the perfect example of connecting the community,” she said. Those relationships, though, ended when the council announced the closing of the camps and outside groups needed to find replacement facilities.
Rebuilding those relationships and looking for creative ways to generate revenue for the camps will be critical for the camps’ survival, Edwards said. As an example, she said that GSNCA is looking to rent out a barn at Camp Tombigbee, west of Tuscaloosa, for weddings. She hopes to have three full years to put into practice new revenue-generators for the camps to prove themselves as viable.
Reinstating elements of camp life that were put on hold is necessary to get campers out, Tate said. Campers pay fees based on length of stay and programming. “I think it’s vital to try to provide some resources for those facilities that were previously closed and are not fully staffed — to give those troops in those areas an opportunity to really show that they want to utilize that camp. We couldn’t do it with the limited budget that we have.” Reconnecting with local partners, like the days prior to the big council mergers, is one step, she said.
Working with the membership and making use of their proposals is another step. “This year,” Edwards said, “is the first time since we merged all the councils that we have both operational volunteers and older girls on our board. … So we have more ways of communication between the membership or the board than we had before.”
One thing that Edwards said the membership wants is more outdoor programming. In recent years, GSUSA has pushed for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programming. “Those of us who’ve been going to camp since 1952 know that you can do STEM in the out of doors. You may not use a computer to do STEM in the out of doors, but getting a net and getting some guppies — that’s science. … For some reason GSUSA seems to have forgotten that the out of doors is a huge part of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
“I think National either may not have done a great job of polling members to find out what was necessary to them,” Tate added, “or maybe members did not respond to polls until changes were made that really upset them. I think we saw that here in North-Central Alabama with the property studies. It’s as if people thought, ‘That won’t happen to me,’ and when it did, they stood up and became ambassadors for outdoor programming, speaking out about the value that they saw in Scouts once they realized it would be taken away. That certainly had an impact on the changes made locally, and I hear that’s the trend nationally. It’s been an awakening, and luckily there’s enough evidence because of what transpired here that National is forced to listen.”
On a recent Thursday morning, 15-year-old Anna Crow met with a dozen other girls in “Robin Hood,” the Coleman cabin that doubles as auditorium and gymnasium. Part of a weeklong camp program dubbed Ms. Fix It, the girls wielded power drills, hammers and saws — constructing wooden benches. On each table sat the blueprint for the bench, modeled after original seats for Robin Hood.
Anna worked alongside Eva Mensch, 12, and Christina Atencio, 14. A drill bit broke, and the girls scuffled for a moment over what happened, how it could have been prevented, before returning to work.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 4,” Anna said. She’s an aspiring equestrian with six horses at home, all thanks to what she learned helping with the horses at Coleman, she said. She hopes they’ll be able to bring the horses back soon and is happy to have a voice within the organization.
“I’m going to the national convention,” she said. “I’m a delegate, so I get to help to make the big decisions. I applied and was selected after they went through the process of interviewing everyone. The decisions affect the entire Girl Scout councils across the United States. You get to express your council’s concerns about what’s happening and work toward resolutions. … We’re facing economic issues, and we need to get more girls into Girl Scouts.”
Anna says girls should sign up because Scouts “instills leadership and courage, and you can also make a lot of friends, which is really nice.”
Making friends is important to Christina, who joined GSNCA the week before this camp began. “I thought it’d be a good way to make friends. … I just met these girls on Sunday and already we’re super weird with one another — or, ourselves.”
Camp, she says, has been very different than interacting with girls at school. “You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to wear or how you look, because people at school are always judging and making fun.
“I don’t want to be like other people. I had to grow up early in life. I noticed how people act toward one another, and I don’t want to be like that. I want to be a better person than that, and I know I have the power to do so.”
Eva stopped her drill as Christina spoke and began nodding. “My camp name is Squeeze, because used to be I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I just kept hugging them. I wasn’t good with words. Before, no one wanted to talk to me. I was really shy. It’s gotten so much better because of my friends here.”
Meggie Hall, 22, was one of the shy kids, too. Now a volunteer, Hall has been coming to Coleman for 17 years.
“I was really shy, and I’m still actually shy outside of camp, but it helped me grow up and gave me the courage to be me opposed to the shy little girl I always was. Gave me friends who I can rely on. … When I left for college, my mom told me to take ‘Camp Meggie’ with me and leave ‘Shy Meggie’ at home.”
It’s hard to be out of your shell when you’re not in your safe place, Hall said. “And camp is my safe place. ‘Camp Meggie’ is not afraid to be silly or stupid. ‘Shy Meggie’ is terrified of being embarrassed. It’s a judgment-free zone. I was OK to be me without being judged.”
Volunteer Rebecca Cooke, known as Rocky to campers, has been visiting Camp Coleman for nearly 20 years and volunteering since 1988. “Camp takes a person and pulls out that inner strength, and when you’ve been gone a way from it for a while, it reminds you who you really are,” she said. “When they are girls, it teaches them that they can be strong — that it’s safe to be who they are, and that they can be a better person. They can learn. They can grow. They become friends with girls who they never would know in a regular setting.”
Cooke talked about moments in “life outside of camp” when low self-esteem or fear kicked in, “then you stop and you go: ‘Wait a minute. Why am I not doing this? I’m Rocky. I’m supposed to be able to do this. My campers wouldn’t let me not do this. I wouldn’t let my campers not do this. If you’re not going to let your campers miss out on this, then why in the world would you?’”
For volunteer Emily Van Valkenburgh, who traveled from Huntsville to volunteer during the Ms. Fix It week, instilling a confidence in the girls that they are capable — capable of building benches, of fixing screens panels, of problem solving — brings her out to Scouts.
“They don’t realize they’re learning to solve all these issues and thinking for themselves,” Cooke added. “They’re having fun.”
Programs like Ms. Fix it will continue throughout the summer along with volunteer-run workdays. The board and council are working to implement a new operational strategic plan, recently voted into action.
Interim CEO Tate said she’s pleased to see how engaged the girls are and excited to be increasing numbers through the Pathways program, which assists girls who cannot afford the $15 membership fee or programming fees.
Members are optimistic, too, in the changes occurring within GSNCA. So is the newly reinstated director, Elliott. “If you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll keep getting the results you’ve always gotten. We’re ready for change.”