On May 31, 2013, Camp Gertrude Coleman will lock its gates for the last time.
In May 2012, Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama (GSNCA) announced a restructuring of property assets — including the sale of four campsites — to combat operating losses of $1 million from 2011.
In a membership newsletter from the same month, Chief Executive Officer Patricia Coghlan wrote, “The board had the fiscal responsibility to make some tough decisions, and many opportunities were given for input. Regardless of what changes come, we continue to stay focused on the girls.”
One of the six camps in GSNCA territory — an area that serves 15,000 girls in a 36-county region — Camp Coleman is, to many, beloved land.
Acquired by the Girl Scouts in 1925, Coleman is also a historic site as the third-longest operating camp in the country, the longest operating camp in Alabama and the state’s first fully integrated camp. Thousands of women spent weekends and summers on the 140-acre Trussville campus, a beautiful stretch of wooded land along the Cahaba River.
In an attempt to preserve the land, Trussville Mayor Gene Melton offered to purchase the camp — admittedly “at a city discount, somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,500 to $5,000 an acre”— to keep the site operating as both community green space and a Girl Scout facility. On March 15, GSNCA rejected Melton’s offer.
Further, a number of community members have offered volunteer services for fundraising and maintenance, expressly for Camp Coleman and the condemned bridge at its entryway. GSNCA also refused those offers, citing liability and professionalism issues. “However, it is not just a question of a one-time campaign to fix camp,” said Hilary Perry, GSNCA’s director of Communications and Advocacy.
Camp Coleman does elicit the philanthropic spirit in those who are enchanted by the place where so many of Alabama’s young women learned to build a fire, to paddle a canoe, to climb a rock wall, overcoming fears and inhibitions in the company of a sisterhood, all the while encouraged by the Girl Scouts’ mission — to build courage, confidence and character.
A group of these women, ingrained with the very mission instilled in them by Scouting, is concerned by the GSNCA’s decision to sell Camp Coleman. The group Friends of Camp Coleman (FoCC) formed “not only to sav[e] Camp Coleman but also to establish an Endowment Fund to ensure that Girl Scouts will be able to call Camp Coleman their own for another 87 years.”
The FoCC challenges Coghlan’s claims, insisting that the membership was not given ample opportunity to chime in on property plans and that such a restructuring is indeed “not for the girls.”
GSNCA Board President Chris Ross wrote in a letter to membership, “We understand the emotional toll this has on some members. Nonetheless, at the heart of this decision is what’s best for meeting the needs of today’s girls.”
A different kind of toll weighs on Sarah Edwards and Pamela Callaway — FoCC president and vice president, respectively — who are former presidents of the GSNCA board of directors. Both women have known Ross, the current president, for decades. Both are lifetime members of Scouting. Both have serious doubts regarding current council practices.
“If they’re saying they don’t have enough money,” Callaway said, “I’d say, ‘You don’t know how to manage your money or volunteers.’ We’re a service provider. We find ways to provide what the girls want and need. We’ve never turned down girls. We’ve never shut down programs. We’ve certainly never sold camps.”
Callaway was board president from 1996 to 2000 and served a total of 12 years on the board. Registered for 48 years as local Girl Scout member, Callaway now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but commutes monthly to Birmingham to attend FoCC meetings.
Joining Scouts in Huntsville in 1952 at the age of 6, Edwards has 61 years of Scouting experience. “I’ve been a leader since 1979. I have been in every position in volunteering possible,” Edward said, “except I’ve never been a camp nurse.”
Edwards is a mascot of sorts for GSNCA, often invited by the council to attend events in her collector’s item 1920s-era uniform. Girls know her in the role she plays, Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, said Tina Waggoner, service unit manager and mother of three Scouts.
“Sarah [Edwards] is a true lifetime member,” said Ruth Ellen Yeager, secretary of FoCC, a troop leader and a former recipient of the Gold Award, the Girl Scouts’ highest honor.
“We had [a GSNCA] annual meeting in April last year,” Edwards said, recalling the report of operating losses at the camps. “That was the first we heard there was a money problem. … ‘We cannot go on in this manner.’ Well, I don’t disagree with that. You can’t go on losing a million dollars a year. We would like to see how the camps lost a million dollars.” Edwards went on to say that if keeping camps open meant the demise of Girl Scout programming, she would support the sale of property.
“We know that Camp Coleman has been close to breaking even,” Edwards said, referring to numbers reported in a GSNCA presentation by the property assessment committee that showed total revenue at a $15,015 loss in 2010 and a $13,823 profit in 2011. (This presentation is available on the GSNCA website.)
In December 2012, Edwards filed a discovery petition against GSNCA in order to review full supporting documentation — board minutes, profit and loss statements, etc. — backing the council and board’s decision. The discovery petition came after members contended that documents made accessible were incomplete and not well organized.
“There is not a single profit and loss statement available for the past four years,” Callaway said. Callaway explained such a statement as monthly records of monies received and dispersed into programming, salaries, maintenance, legal fees, etc. Callaway said there are a number of discrepancies between records kept by volunteers and what the GSNCA reported to its board.
“Members were offered a two-hour time slot on only four predetermined days by the council,” Yeager explained, “during which they would be allowed to come in, sign a never-before-seen confidentiality agreement, and were then charged 50 cents a page to purchase a copy of the documents.” Yeager claimed the documents made available to them were disorganized and had “gaps and omissions,” causing the members to pay repeatedly for the same information.
GSNCA maintains that it demonstrated complete transparency. Perry said, “Many of the documents were available…and had already been provided to Sarah Edwards and several other members who had requested access, so we honestly aren’t sure of the reason for the litigation.”
In a February letter to the membership regarding the discovery motion, Ross and Coghlan reported, “Staff spent 339 hours searching for and gathering 10,945 pages of documents in response to the discovery requests. GSNCA has requested to be reimbursed for reasonable expenses, that took away from our mission of serving girls — $50 an hour for staff time ($16,950) and 50 [cents] a page ($5,472.50) — before the actual documents are produced to Ms. Edwards and her attorneys, Bradford & Ladner.”
Edwards said she isn’t deterred, claiming much of this documentation should not have required a great time commitment to uncover. “We’re going in front of a judge [on April 4] to get the $22,000 set aside to be able to view the documents, because I’m a member of the organization, and the Sunshine Law of Alabama says any member gets to view documents.”
Campaigning for Camps
Edwards recalled that during the 1990s, the financial situation of the Girl Scouts Cahaba council — now merged into the larger GSNCA council — compromised the future of local Scouting. Edwards, then volunteer president of the board, was placed in the position of ceasing programming or selling camp property. Instead, she and her board opted to run a capital campaign, collecting more than $3 million in donations.
“We found the money. We had a huge committee of volunteers,” Edwards said. Faced with the current possibility of closing camps, Edwards questioned why such a campaign has not again been attempted.
“There were no council campaigns (media, marketing or fundraising) to save camps because, as our assessment revealed, our council cannot continue to operate six camps,” Perry said. “It is necessary to consolidate to one or two camps.”
“A capital fundraising campaign is anticipated,” Perry said, “as part of the long-term plan once the feasibility studies and subsequent plans for camps have been developed.”
The FoCC doubts the current council’s fundraising ability. In 2011, 66 percent of GSNCA’s $6.5 million revenue derived from girls’ cookie sales.
The council maintains that no amount of fundraising would sustain the current property structure.
“Our three-phase property plan will allow us to put our membership first as we move into the second century of Girl Scouting,” Perry said, citing national trends in the Girl Scouts. Those trends include a movement toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as major elements in future programming. Perry also claimed that the interests of the girls no longer lie with camping.
Waggoner is concerned by the council’s take on this change. “I think we have a membership of girls who love to camp. … If they wanted to do something else, there are a million other clubs, but they chose to do Girl Scouts for the traditional values.
“The current staff is looking to take the organization in a different direction. Some of it comes from national, but instead of incorporating new ideas with the traditional values, they’re moving in a new direction. The direction that they’re going is to be a clearinghouse for classes [that] girls can take in leadership. That’s not what this organization has been about for 101 years,” Waggoner said.
As Weld reported last week, other council areas in the nation are experiencing similar shifts in focus — and resistance to those shifts. Several Scouting organizations have conducted feasibility and property assessments to determine the viability of operating campsites and related programming.
In 2011, GSNCA conducted a property assessment on all assets, including its six campgrounds: Camp Cottaquilla in Anniston, Kanawahala Program Center (KPC) in Chelsea, Trico in Guntersville, Anderel in Rogersville, Tombigbee in Boligee and Coleman in Trussville.
Based on the records of GSNCA, the estimated net book value of Camp Cottaquilla is $1.3 million; KPC is $1.9 million; Camp Coleman is $2.5 million; Trico is $2.7 million; Anderel is $3 million; and Tombigbee is $4 million.
The four camps with the highest booking value have been or will be closed to sell; Tombigbee and Anderel have already been closed, while Trico and Coleman are scheduled for May.
“Camp Coleman lost over $330,000, and in 2011 it lost over $200,000, even after several cost-saving measures were put in to place,” Perry said. “We actually discovered that more expenses should have been attributed to that amount, making the total loss over $440,000 for 2010, and over $290,000 for 2011.”
In the fall of 2011, Glen Chin, land-use planner and property management consultant for Girl Scouts USA, produced a report on each camp, recommending, “Offer two resident camps instead of four. … A good number of girls are drawn to Camp Coleman for resident and day camp run concurrently.”
Chin reported, “Camp Coleman is the most utilized site. Total usage in 2010 exceeded 6,500 girls, close to 43 [percent] of the girl membership served.”
Perry said that despite the camp’s usage, “All of our camps were underutilized and operate at a loss, including Camp Coleman.”
According to a document on the GSNCA website entitled “Responses to Property Plan Questions” — a reaction to the outpouring of membership concerns regarding the three-phase property plan — “Resident camps were not canceled in 2011. The number of campers attending North Alabama camps remained the same from the previous summer. A decrease in campers was seen at Camp Coleman and KPC.”
Conversely, Chin reported an 18 percent resident (summer) camp usage at Coleman in 2010 and 23 percent in 2011. Total usage for the camp in 2011 was unavailable at the time of his report as day camp continued to operate on weekends.
Chin also reported Camp Coleman required maintenance repairs on cabins, a bathhouse and the pasture, totaling $23,000. Chin estimated replacing those same facilities at $640,000 and replacing the swimming pool at $150,000.
GSNCA claimed to have further investigated its property — an extension of Coghlan’s aforementioned “many opportunities for input” — by surveying its membership. “Over 8,000 surveys were emailed, 1,500 were mailed, and we held open town hall meetings to our membership and made the surveys available on the homepage of our website, as well as our social media outlets,” Perry said.
Currently, the GSNCA has 20,000 members with 5,000 acting adult volunteers. The GSNCA website states 155 resident-camp surveys were completed and 792 “market research” surveys were completed. Less than 5 percent of the membership responded to the surveys.
However, the FoCC and other volunteers and staff take issue with the methods under which the survey was conducted as well as the questions posed on the survey itself.
The GSNCA contracted a UAB marketing professor and his undergraduate class to construct an evaluation of camp usage. According to the FoCC, the council did not instruct the membership of the survey’s significance. (Members recall “trivial questions” such as, “Does your daughter enjoy canoeing?”) GSNCA contends the surveys were not a deciding factor in closing camps, yet the council points to surveys as both a method for gathering membership input and as an example of how little the members actually participated in assessing the property.
The council did not hold an open vote for the membership’s elected delegates. The board made the final decision. But the FoCC points to state law as mandating that members should get to vote on property disposition. The group quotes, “Alabama Code 10A-3-6.01: Sale, lease, exchange or mortgage of assets: the sale of all or substantially all of the property and assets of a nonprofit corporation shall be ‘submitted to a vote at a meeting of members entitled to vote thereon.’”
The council contends that members did have a say — or an opportunity for a say — in the decision. “The team took measures to ensure the membership had a voice through surveys and face-to-face meetings. There was a low response rate,” Coghlan wrote in the GSNCA May 2012 newsletter.
Jim Franklin, a supporter of the FoCC and grandfather of a Brownie, said, “When people were upset that they didn’t receive a survey, the CEO said, ‘We don’t have a way to contact every member.’” Franklin pointed out that every GSNCA member receives information from the council on selling cookies.
“They told our membership that they put out this huge amount of surveys,” twenty-five year volunteer Debbie Ellis said, “but I haven’t been able to find one person who got a survey.”
“I took the survey,” FoCC secretary Yeager said, “There was nothing in the survey that made you think they might be remotely considering selling the camps.”
Karen Cooper is a 46-year Girl Scout member. She and her husband lead activities for older girls — the cadets, seniors and ambassadors. “I have a dual master’s. I’ve done surveys for the government. … When I went through [the GSNCA survey], I thought, ‘This is not a good survey at all.’”
The UAB professor who carried out the survey has not been identified by the council despite Weld’s request, and is, therefore, not able to respond to such claims.
According to the GSNCA, “UAB had no ulterior motives with respect to the outcomes of the research. UAB was only told that the Girl Scouts wanted data to make the best strategic decision with respect to our properties. … The purpose of a survey is to gather unbiased information. None of the property assessment surveys were designed with the intent of closing camps.”
(A full breakdown of the survey’s methods is available on the GSNCA website under “Responses to Property Questions.” The professor’s name remains protected, as does the survey and its raw data.)
Cooper and several others said they were confused by the survey’s purpose and miffed to discover its results were, according to Cooper, used in favor of selling Camp Coleman. “I would never recommend to sell the camps,” Cooper said.
“We were hoping that the board would do a real survey on every girl,” Edwards said. The FoCC wants the GSNCA to conduct a survey that explicitly asks questions: Do you enjoy camping? If so, which camps do you prefer? If we had to close camps, which ones would you prefer we keep open?
To add to the survey confusion, the FoCC claims that too high a percentage of those polled had daughters who have yet to reach the age of camp-eligibility.
According to the GSNCA website, a pie chart breaks down (by Girl Scout age category) the percentage of girls surveyed. However, the pie chart totals more than 131 percent — without explanation to the total number of girls surveyed. The GSNCA states that this is not an error. “They could check all that applied. Meaning, if there were four Girl Scouts in a family, then they were to select all that applied. This type of chart is not intended to equal 100 percent,” Perry said.
As a pie chart represents a part-to-whole relationship, Weld requested to speak with the overseeing professor for clarification. Perry responded that the professor preferred GSNCA relay this explanation to the newspaper:
So, the problem with “check all that apply” questions is that you cannot easily analyze the [percentages] as survey respondents can accurately mark more than one option. … The students figured out their percentages based on a total of 661 (people marking boxes) — however they should have used 868 (total # of boxes checked) 868/661 = 131 percent.
The GSNCA reported a minor margin of error, guaranteeing membership that although students created questions and evaluated responses, were the professor to have done so, there would have been slight changes, such as repetitious or more complex questions.
The FoCC believes not only that the survey was equipped with ill-fitting questions, but also that its results were not presented in a clear-cut fashion. “We asked last June to see the raw questions and raw answers from that survey,” Edwards said. “We haven’t yet. I was told in August that they were rewriting the answers so that we could understand them.” Edwards included the raw survey data as part of the request for information in the discovery motion.
Post-survey, the GSNCA council held town hall meetings to gain membership input.
According to Board Presiden Ross, “Immediately following the announcement of the three-phase property plan, five town hall meetings were held in various locations in GSNCA’s service area for members to provide input and express their opinions and concerns about the plan. A total of approximately 74 members attended these meetings.”
Waggoner suspects poor attendance was a result of having short notice as the meetings were announced two weeks prior to the first session.
A newsletter dated December 20, 2011, reads, “If you did not have a chance to participate in the Property Assessment survey, there will be other opportunities to provide feedback. In January, we will hold town hall meetings through the Council area. Everyone is invited to attend.”
“Communication with the membership is of the utmost importance and has never been ceased,” Perry said. During the property assessment meetings, GSNCA presented the results of the surveys.
But the FoCC claimed that no one was informed — although some may have suspected — that the January 2012 meetings were about closing camps. The FoCC claimed individuals “point-blank” asked the council if the surveys and meetings were research-gathering techniques for a possible divestment of the camps.
Waggoner, who could not attend the Birmingham meeting but said she would have driven more than an hour to participate in a discussion regarding the sale of camp property, said, “No one knew the reason for these meetings and certainly didn’t know that it concerned selling camp properties.”
Connie Birdsong has been a volunteer with the Girl Scouts since she was a student at Auburn University 25 years ago. “I said, ‘I am here specifically tonight because I don’t want to see the selling of Camp Coleman.’ And they said, ‘All this is, is a reporting of what the survey said.’ They said, ‘We don’t have any plans at this time.’
“They didn’t say, ‘We promise we’re not going to sell camps…’ They led us to believe that this was just a survey to find out how the camps would be utilized and how they would be used in the future, not ‘We’re using this information to decide which camps will be sold.’”
For the membership, the town hall meetings were as cloaked in mystery as the survey.
Perry deflected the importance of the survey and maintained the meetings as an opportunity for membership input. “Multiple criteria went into this decision including (in no particular order): amount of operating loss, number of girl members served, amount of troop/service unit usage, amount of capital repairs needed to continue use, opportunities to develop into camp to serve more girls, capacity on holding resident camp during feasibility study, and amount of equipment needing to be replaced.”
A Special Meeting
Perry pointed out that if the membership had major concerns, leaders have the right to make a formal request to the board. “Additionally, according to our bylaws, our membership can petition for the board president to call a special meeting of the members, and no one has presented our board chair with any petition.”
But Waggoner said that not only did she write to Board President Ross, but also that she has Ross’ response. “I have letters signed by representatives of 15 service units, which adds up to a little over 3,000 Girl Scouts, also requesting this special meeting. Unfortunately, our bylaws require 50 percent plus one of the service units to request the meeting before the president of the board is required to call it. … Still, it is within Ms. Ross’ power to call a special meeting without service unit requests.”
Here is the excerpt from Waggoner’s letter:
“Through my active participation, I have made contacts with members all over this Council, not just in my little part of Shelby County. What I need to tell you today is that there is a rift in this Council and it is growing larger every day that the voting members — the delegates – are denied participation in the decisions of this Council.
“Our bylaws grant you the right and the responsibility to call a Special Meeting of the Council and I am begging you to do it now. This is the only way that the membership can be heard and you MUST do it before irrevocable harm is done. Ms. Ross, YOU have the power to change this situation and mend the rift in this Council before it is too late.”
Here is Ross’ response (as recorded by Waggoner):
“I appreciate your sharing your thoughts and concerns with regard to Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama. I also appreciate your service to the girls and to our Council.
“I will share with the Board at our January meeting your thoughts and concerns. Please know that this board has the best interests of all of the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama at heart. We are committed to providing a valuable leadership experience in a fun, relevant and safe environment. We are also committed to the mission of building girls of courage, confidence and character, who will make the world a better place.”
A special meeting was never held nor was Waggoner’s request formally denied.
Rift between the Ranks
The rift between membership and council is echoed throughout volunteers and members. A number of employees, volunteers and girls were unwilling to go on the record with Weld, claiming fear of retribution from the council.
“We have 1,100 [supporters] on the Facebook page, but we have a lot of people who are afraid to support us publically,” Edwards said.
“Not just current staff but operational volunteers like me,” Yeager added. “I’m a troop leader. They could take away my troop.”
Coghlan would not comment on internal personnel matters, explaining, “This does not teach our girls how to be effective leaders. I can say that we hold our staff and volunteers to the same standards and expectations, and when those standards and expectations are not met, appropriate action is taken.”
Longtime volunteer Ellis prefers open communication. “I wrote to the board of directors several times after the situation was coming into place. I asked them a lot of questions. Finally, I got the board president to answer me back but she didn’t answer any of my questions. It was just a ‘Thank you for your letter’ kind of thing,” Ellis said.
Ellis is concerned two camps will not be enough to service all Girl Scout members and that were troop leaders required to take girls on to public camping spaces, there would be trouble. Ellis recalled stories of taking troops on public campgrounds and spending her night shooing away drunken men from their site.
Seventeen-year-old Lita Waggoner, daughter of Tina Waggoner, is in pursuit of the Gold Award. Last year, Lita was one of 10 girls (of 15,000) selected to attend the Girl Scout leadership institute.
Lita had reservations about speaking against the council, but is concerned for the younger generation of Scouts and their leadership opportunities.
Commenting on Lita’s fear, her sister, Lindsey, who is 14 and in pursuit of the Silver Award, said, “It’s kind of sad that the organization that is supposed to empower girls to speak their minds is making them afraid to do so.”
The sisters were present at Girl Council, an event for teenagers during which girls are encouraged to engage in open discourse with the council on programming. Last year’s Girl Council focused on the three-phase property plan.
“There was a video explaining the properties for adults,” Lita said.
“They quickly realized most of the young girls wouldn’t understand the language. Most 8-year-olds don’t know what ‘fiduciary’ means. So they were asking us to adapt it for younger girls,” Lindsey said.
“We kind of hoped that we could have a discussion about it,” Lita said, “and get girls to talk about possible solutions — even if we weren’t going to talk about stopping the sale of the camps, at least talk about how they feel and what we hope to do in the future. That’s not what they wanted us to do.”
The Waggoner sisters said all but one girl opted out of participating in the video — available on GSNCA’s website — with Ross, who had this to say: “The girl who was in the video with me did so by her own choice in an effort to help girls understand the process, not to convince them to accept the plan. I found the experience to be very inspiring, as the young lady was truly exhibiting courage, confidence and character.”
The GSNCA did not comment on the perception of a climate of fear by those who speak against it, but the alleged animosity is apparent to Ellis.
“Where’s the sense in it?” Ellis asked. “So many people are upset about this. They’re going to be shooting themselves in the foot, because they’re already losing girls to Boy Scouts” — Ellis refers to the trend of girls leaving Girl Scouts to join the boys — “I wish I could give you the name and number of someone who may be in support of selling the camps, but quite honestly, I don’t know of anybody. Everyone I have spoken to has been ‘Well, I wish they wouldn’t, but what can we do about it?’”
What Can Be Done?
This sentiment is shared among many in the membership.
The FoCC opted to apply for grant funding through the Alabama Historical Foundation. Because the FoCC did not have all the necessary financial information, “We presented the grant to [the board] as an act of goodwill, but they didn’t complete the grant,” Yeager said.
“If you look at the suggested grant opportunity for $64,000 presented by [the FoCC] in its entirety,” Perry said, “you’ll find, as did our highly-qualified resource development staff, that we do not meet the eligibility requirements. It is not the best use of anyone’s resources to apply for a grant in which we know we do not meet the requirements.”
“Whether they would have been funded I can’t say —” said Clara Nobles of the Alabama Historic Commission, “even if they had qualified, because the competition was very tight. We had $1.2 million to grant out last year. We received grant applications for $6 million. … There was no way to fund everyone. There were excellent grants that could not be funded.”
Due to the efforts of the Coleman Girls, a Pell City-based troop led by April Ellis Smith, Camp Coleman was awarded a place on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage and received a marker in June 2012.
Dorothy Walker, coordinator of the Historical Marker Program, said, “Our role is to help places that have significant history like Camp Coleman — to help them promote that history widely and broadly and help educate people about how significant that history is and that it is worthy of both recognition and preservation.”
Of the grant, Callaway, FoCC vice president, said, “We saw it as another example of the pattern we observed from this CEO [and] COO [and] board. Though we disagree with attendance numbers, the council claims that expense issues began three [years] ago, yet the depth of the issue was never communicated to the membership — through the monthly leader meetings, the publications to leaders each month, delegate training, annual meetings. Therefore, the membership, who had the highest stake in the success of the camps, was never given the opportunity to be a part of a solution in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.”
“Much dialogue has taken place via town hall meetings,” Perry said, “and some members have written emails and letters. Our board members have spent much time listening to our membership, and welcome members to express their opinions through established contact procedures.”
Trouble over the Bridge
Another marked schism between the GSNCA and various interested parties involves the main entrance bridge to Camp Coleman. Jefferson County, which owns the bridge, condemned it in 2010, leading to volunteer efforts to have it repaired.
“Any discussions on how to deal with the condemned bridge at Camp Coleman, including building a new bridge, was tabled until the property assessment was completed,” Perry said. “The bridge has always been owned by the county, and the county flatly stated they could not fix it. Additionally, no one on staff is aware of any offer to fix the bridge.”
Although the cash-strapped county is unable to fix the bridge, there has been talk of the county giving the bridge to Camp Coleman, some volunteers said. And County Engineer Wayne Sullivan of the roads and transportation department said his office would support giving the bridge to the GSNCA — with the commission’s approval. “It’s not been taken to the commission at this point and time,” he said.
Others, too, said they have offered to help with the bridge, like Wayne Mandeville, who lives near the camp. Back in 2010, the same year the bridge was condemned, Mandeville said he discussed the possibility that volunteers could repair the bridge with Camp Coleman Director Laura Elliott and the maintenance staff.
“I have a friend whose son is a crane operator. At the time I talked to him — and it was Crane Works in Birmingham — they were going to donate the labor and the crane for the repairs. I found steel and had the steel donated. The only thing I was doing was coordinating, wanting to help,” Mandeville said.
Elliott could not be reached for comment, but the GSNCA has maintained that considerations regarding the bridge were postponed until the completion of the property assessment.
“I personally have never received or ‘refused’ any offer concerning the repair of the bridge at Camp Coleman,” said GSNCA COO Rhonda Lambert. “The bridge is owned by Jefferson County, and GSNCA did not and does not have the authority to accept any offer concerning the bridge repairs: that would be a decision Jefferson County would have to make.”
In his property assessment report, Chin wrote, “Develop a drainage study and storm water management plan for Camp Coleman. Purchase the entrance bridge and assume responsibility. Create a capital development budget and improved maintenance budget.”
The FoCC maintain that various offers by volunteers to repair the bridge represent the community’s support of Camp Coleman.
Debbie Tews is a 37-year Girl Scout member and longtime volunteer who said she’s “devastated” by the current tensions between the council and membership as well as the decision to sell Coleman. She remembers a flood at Camp Coleman, during which the scouts rallied community support.
“We put it on the news, and we had people coming out of the woodwork wanting to help. I know if you did the same thing — this camp needs some help, some money, whatever — people would come out to help. People support Scouting,” Tews said.
“Volunteers have performed tasks at camps such as clearing trails, branches, or downed trees in the past,” Perry said. “It is in the best interest of the council that this is managed in accordance with our volunteer policies and procedures. The staff will set up work weekends for troops and groups to come clean up the camp in the spring and provide free room and board. It should be noted that we’ve held these type ‘clean-ups’ at camps with very little participation.”
“They’ve lost a lot of support in the communities, and community support is the only way to maintain a nonprofit,” Jim Franklin said.
Mayor Melton’s offer to buy the camp would alleviate some of the financial burden associated with running it. “[The GSNCA] could sit down and look at the schedule that they’d need to keep the camp open at certain times during the year, and the city would close the camp to the public during those times and already have staff available during those times so they wouldn’t have overhead,” Melton said.
“They turned that down because they said they wanted to liquidate and turn their assets into cash. Our interest is not to buy the property and turn around and make a profit but to provide a service to the community. I understand that their interest is to make the most on the property and put it back into the council,” the mayor said.
Problematically for the council, in 2003, the Freshwater Land Trust acquired a conservation easement that includes 29 percent of Camp Coleman. Richard Malloy, a property appraiser for Malloy & Co. who is known as an expert on conservation easements, said, “The property values could be impaired by maybe 90 percent.”
Malloy pointed out the easement acts as a watershed, a great benefit to our waterways. “So there’s a list of ‘cans and can’ts,’ all with the goal of trying to protect the watershed. You cannot defeat one of these easements. Anyone who buys the property is subject to that easement.”
Wendy Jackson, executive director of the Freshwater Land Trust, said, “[The conservation easement] contains about 30 acres of land. Total acquisition cost about $225,000. It restricts any kind of development along a corridor along the Cahaba — anywhere from a 100 to 600 foot wide buffer along the Cahaba.”
The GSNCA responded to Melton’s efforts to preserve the land. On behalf of the board, Ross wrote to Melton, “Your commitment to providing the residents of Trussville green space for years to come, and to preserve such a beautiful and historical piece of property, should be commended. … Liquidating assets at such a reduced rate and under the appraised value would simply be negligent on our part and would generate justified concerns among our constituents that have committed many years of their lives to the upkeep of this property.
“Furthermore,” Ross said in her letter Melton, “please know that the decision by our board to close and sell a number of camps in our council was the most difficult decision we’ve made. Yet when only 5 [percent] of our membership was utilizing the camps year-round, economically we could no longer afford to operate or maintain the number of camps in our council.”
Such a statement further confuses the FoCC on the council’s stance on Coleman’s usage and the method of reporting those numbers. (Again, Chin’s report stated nearly 40 percent of girl membership utilized Camp Coleman in 2010.)
Members, like Karen Carroll, report service units needing to split camping weekends among troops due to lack of space. FoCC claims service unit usage was reported as “one usage.”
Yeager explained, “Some [service units] have 20 [troops], some have 30, some have six. At an average of 10 [girls per troop], we’re talking about 350 girls. But [one service unit] was reported as one use.”
The FoCC also said that the council cites the camp’s low attendance numbers as one of the deciding elements in opting to close Coleman, yet the council cites the camp’s declined state as caused by increased usage.
The council explains this contradiction by citing member usage as too low and community usage as too high. “These properties, especially Camp Coleman, have been used for years by schools and other non-members in an effort to increase revenue. This additional use caused increased wear and tear on our facilities and the procedures of the legacy councils were to defer maintenance. Now our camps have seen a decline in number of girls in attendance resulting in the underutilization by our membership,” Perry said.
The maintenance and girl-usage issue is a bit like the chicken-and-the-egg quandary. The FoCC claims the council allowed Camp Coleman’s maintenance to decline — citing the bridge as the key example — in order for attendance to decline; deterioration in the condition of campgrounds would lead to lower numbers. The council contends minimum maintenance was carried out during the property assessment in order to stave off unnecessary spending.
What Will Be Lost
Regardless of the circumstances that led to the closing of the camps, GSNCA members lament what will be lost.
“The history and the land should remain. [Camping is] conducive to girls growing and learning,” said Linda Layfield, Girl Scout volunteer for 32 years.
“I’ve seen what a difference camp can do for girls,” said volunteer Debbie Ellis. “It seems to give them such a sense of self-confidence when they can get out there and do all these things that seem like boy territory. They need to feel that they are strong and do whatever they set their minds to” — a poignant declaration considering that GSUSA recently reported 70 percent of women in the U.S. Senate were once Girl Scouts.
Karen Cooper and her husband have led troops — sometimes as many as three at a time — for decades. “It was always amazing to me the degree of how much they expanded their worlds just by being outdoors,” Cooper said.
“Coleman is a favorite among the girls,” said troop leader April Ellis Smith. “Camping builds leadership skills, team building skills. It gives the girls a chance to try out these things in a safe environment, to build confidence, and grow as young women. It gives them an opportunity to make friends that they wouldn’t otherwise meet.”
With fewer camps, Ambassador Scout Lita said, “It’s going to be harder to be a camp counselor. It will be more competitive for the teenagers to get summer jobs and be leaders. Girls will have fewer opportunities to camp and do wall climbing and archery.” Lita explained how outdoor activities transform girls’ self-esteem and aptitude for long-term goals.
“My friend always wanted to touch the bottom of the pool,” Lita said. “We were little, and the pool was 12-feet deep. I learned how first. … We did that every summer until she learned.”
For Lita and her sister, Cadet Scout Lindsey, and many of the longtime Girl Scout members, camp is like home.
Tina Waggoner, mother of the girls, clarifies that the sisters consider KPC their home camp, but have spent many weekends at Coleman. “We are involved in this fight to save camps because we believe in outdoor education for all Girl Scouts, even though ‘our’ camp is not on the auction block…yet,” Waggoner said.
“The girls who have lived in that area for a long time, when they lose Coleman, they’ll lose the place that their moms went to, that their grandmas went to,” Lindsey said.
“This past year at summer camp,” Lindsey said, “I started being a program aide. Because I’d been at that camp my entire life, I could lead the girls better. I know the camp like the back of my hand. It will be difficult for girls to lead younger girls if we’re meeting in a new, strange place.”
“You can stand on a bridge and remember the time you dropped a flashlight in the lake. We tell a ghost story every year about the light still being on,” Lita said.
Her sister added, “Year after year after year. You learn to grow out of your comfort zone. It’s a home away from home when it’s that personal to you.”
And it is that personal — to the multitude of women and men who are fighting to save Camp Coleman.
“I am confident the three-phase property plan ensures the future of Girl Scouting in North-Central Alabama by putting girls first,” Ross maintained. “Our goal is to be the best at providing a valuable leadership experience for girls that is fun and relevant in a safe environment.”
“We cannot provide this while continuing to operate the number of facilities we occupied at the standard of service our members are currently receiving, expect and deserve,” Perry said.
Still, the FoCC wants the opportunity to preserve the Scouting mission through camping. “Let those who love the camps have the opportunity to save them,” Edwards said.
“We want them to rescind the three-phase property plan — immediately — before the next two camps [including Coleman] are sold. Work with the membership to find out what girls want. Ask the community for help. Find out what’s real and what’s not,” Tina Waggoner said.
All parties involved are resolved to follow through on their responsibility to preserve the Girl Scout mission despite the country’s economic downturn. The divide between the FoCC and GSNCA exists in the methods by which that mission will be upheld.
Young Lindsey Waggoner, in tune with such an understanding, asked, “How is it then that women sacrificed to keep the camps open during the Great Depression and World War II, but we can’t now? Why? For money?”