Girl Scout Council continues conversation on Camp Tahigwa

by Lissa Blake

A community conversation about the future of Camp Tahigwa created more questions than answers at a Friends of Tahigwa meeting held Monday, July 29 in the Community Room of Farmers and Merchants Savings Bank in Waukon.
About 40 friends of Camp Tahigwa, the Girl Scout Camp located near Dorchester in Allamakee County, attended that roundtable discussion hosted by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois (GSEIWI).
Diane Nelson, chief executive officer of the GSEIWI, facilitated the meeting. She fielded questions from the audience for more than two hours.
Other GSEIWI representatives present at the meeting included Angela Ventris, senior program manager; Doug Nelson, chief financial officer; Holly Bark, regional manager; Nikki Habben, vice president of business operations; and Board members John Cummings, Nancy Bether and Lee Mowers.

In March, a vote by the GSEIWI Board on whether to sell four Girl Scout camps in Iowa was canceled following a request for an injunction to stop it. The vote was planned following a recommendation by the GSEIWI’s volunteer property committee to sell some or all of the camps.
Prior to the vote, a group of four former camp staff members and volunteers filed a document in Scott County asking a judge to stop the Girl Scout Council’s Board from voting on the sale of Camp Tahigwa in Allamakee County, Camp Conestoga in Scott County, Camp Little Cloud in Dubuque County and Camp L-Kee-Ta in Des Moines County.
Following the request, the Council canceled the vote and passed a revised “outdoor vision” for the camps, which focused on two main concepts: establishing one, centrally located and modernized residential camp at Camp Conestoga in New Liberty, and using Camp Tahigwa, Camp Little Cloud and Camp L-Tee-Ka primarily for troop needs, day camps and overnight camps.

Prior to the discussion, Nelson said she had scheduled the meeting as an opportunity to meet with friends of Camp Tahigwa and come up with creative ideas about its future.
“How can we get people who want to support Camp Tahigwa to use it more?” asked Nelson.
Nelson next asked for a show of hands of how many people had used the camp on at least five occasions over the past year. Few people raised their hands.
“Four? (times)… Three?… Two?… One?” she asked, as each of her questions resulted in only a couple of people raising their hands. “If we are the most passionate group of users and we’re not using it, how are we going to get others to use it?” asked Nelson.
Nelson said she feels the key to making Camp Tahigwa work is to market the facilities to more “outside users.” Others in attendance expressed concerns the Council doesn’t do enough to promote the camps.
One parent, who just moved to Decorah, said her troop leader didn’t even mention camp opportunities to her or her daughter. “I think the Council can do more to support new leaders,” said Diane Sadler of Decorah. “We have to make it easy to take girls to camp."
Nelson said everyone in attendance needs to make a more concerted effort to advocate for Camp Tahigwa. “It’s not us and them. We need to each take a piece of that responsibility,” said Nelson, referring to the attitude of camp advocates vs. the Council.
“The Council has to support what the local people are doing,” added Edna Haskovec of Waukon.

Several attendees lamented there are no resident camps scheduled at Camp Tahigwa, nor are there CIT (counselor-in-training) sessions scheduled. “If there isn’t CIT, what’s going to happen to camp in this area? We’re almost being set up to fail,” said one parent.
One suggestion was the Council utilize former camp staff as volunteers to continue to provide overnight camping opportunities for girls. Volunteers recently scheduled and ran Camptastic, a three-day session at Camp Tahigwa. The Council helped promote the event, but was not otherwise involved in its administration.
Another suggestion was to partner with Luther College so students could get credit hours for helping at the camp.

Many in attendance suggested tweaking the Council’s camp brochure and developing a video which highlights fun things girls can do at camp. Nelson added the Council plans to do a better job of tracking all of the people who come to camp, so they can be targeted for future marketing.
Another suggestion was the Council update its website with good-quality pictures depicting girls having fun at the camp.
“We also could invite the administrations of Luther College, NICC and Upper Iowa University, as well as CEOs of area companies to come see what kinds of opportunities exist for outdoor education or corporate retreats," said Decorah's Sadler.
Nelson also admitted she thinks it should be easier for people to register to come to camp. “I think sometimes people give up (while they’re trying to register online) and then we lose out,” she said.

While many attending the session appreciated the Council’s willingness to meet with them and brainstorm ideas for keeping Camp Tahigwa, many repeatedly returned to concerns that the Council has no plans to offer a resident, overnight camping opportunity at Tahigwa.
“If we get volunteers to run a two-week camp, can we have a resident camp?” one attendee asked Nelson.
Dale Putnam of Decorah said the recent Camptastic weekend involved 5,100 volunteers. “We’re trying,” she said.
One leader said while she appreciates the Council keeping the camp open for special events, “Troop camp cannot foster the same experience as resident camp.” Troop camping is completely overseen by volunteers from the group visiting the camp and does not require the hiring of paid staff.
Mowers said while the biggest obstacle to offering resident camp is financial, “If it’s volunteer-led, that could change things.”
One attendee asked if the Council would give the volunteers a goal as far as a number of attendees that would be needed to hold a resident camp. Nelson said she couldn’t give a specific number and reiterated the Council has slated one resident camp for next year at Camp Little Cloud with future plans to include resident camp at the new centralized resident camp in New Liberty.
“Right now there is no resident camp scheduled for Camp Tahigwa,” said Nelson.
When Haskovec asked why the group was even having the conversation, if the Council has already made up its mind to not offer resident camp at Tahigwa any more, Nelson said, “I would never tell you it isn’t going to be productive to have a conversation.”
“People want to see there can be a change,” said Haskovec.

Nelson said, in a nutshell, people are not using any of the camps enough. “The Council is not the enemy. We are trying to figure out how to keep all four camps open,” said Nelson. “We need to figure out how to get people excited about coming to camp… It’s the fun that gets you there. A life-changing experience is what keeps you coming back.”

Putnam said there is a Bridge to Bismarcks adventure overnight camp scheduled the weekend of September 14 at Camp Tahigwa. There is also a Junior Jamboree dance at the camp September 28.
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