Today’s Girl Scouts want high adventure, things like rappelling and zip-lining. They want to build fires and canoe while camping in treehouse-style structures.
Their parents want camping facilities that include air conditioning and showers.
Three of the six Girl Scout camps that the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois uses will close within 18 months, according to the Girl Scouts, for reasons ranging from service duplication to limited use. The underlying reason for all, though, is exorbitant maintenance costs. Those three, in Salem, Makanda and Worden, will close within two years, according to the GSSI.
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Camp Whispering Oaks, in Salem, had the fewest campers in fiscal 2013-2014, according to a Girl Scout report. Camp Cedar Point, in Makanda, also has inadequate participation, according to a report commissioned by the Girl Scouts, and Camp Chan Ya Ta, in Worden, provides the same services as Camp Torqua in nearby Edwardsville.
“I’m very sad for the people in Carbondale... Their options have been taken away,” said Jodie Herbstritt, a Girl Scout service unit team leader.
Herbstritt was on the property assessment team, which the Girl Scouts convened as part of their evaluation of camp properties that included hiring a firm to assess properties and recommend a master plan. The scouts also held town hall meetings and an online survey. The firm, Kaleidoscope, evaluated each camp individually for factors including site usage and financial impact.
“We just have too many camps for the size of our council,” said Villie Apoo, CEO of the Girl Scouts.
The GSSI brought it upon themselves, says one Girl Scout mom.
“They’re more focused on STEM than outdoors stuff,” said Crystal Slawter, whose daughter Kaeloni is a student at Whiteside. She said the Council started moving more activities indoors to accommodate Science Technology Engineering and Math studies, and moved things inside that otherwise would have brought girls to camp.
One of Kleidoscope’s suggestions is to create nature and STEM activity areas at Camp Torqua.
Apoo says the Girl Scouts are committed to providing outdoor activities for girls, and part of their plan is to partner with more non-Girl Scout camps. Girl Scouts already has a partnership with Touch of Nature, in Makanda.
“The concept we want to get across, is camping is a program, not a property. ... we can offer it in multiple ways at multiple sites,” Apoo said.
Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois covers 40.5 counties, and had 12,250 girls from Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015. That’s down from 13,938 the year prior, but GSSI has maintained at least a 12.4 percent market share in the last three years. Jay Strobel, chief communications officer for the GSSI, said the national average is just under 7 percent.
The Lewis and Clark Council of the Boy Scouts covers 15 counties and has 25,500 boys. The Council has four camps; a Boy Scout representative knowledgeable about camp usage was not available on Friday.
Apoo of the Girl Scouts said camps need to be used 30 percent of the time – a number representing every weekend of the year – to be sustainable.
“We weren’t hitting 30 percent at all. Some were 10 percent, 12 percent ... after all the marketing and promoting – we actually told them ‘use it or lose it’ – only (Camp Torqua) came up to 30 percent,” she said.
“We just have too many camps for the size of our council.”
The resources used now at the camps to be closed will be poured into the camps Torqua, Wassatoga and Butterfly, Girl Scout officials say.
Strobal said that’s the next step of the process — figuring out what those resources will be. Kaleidoscope provided suggestions, but nothing has yet been decided.
“If we want new people hooked on camping, we have to offer them something new,” Apoo said. She said Kaleidoscope representatives looked at Camp Cedar Point in Makanda and said “my goodness, this camp hasn’t moved out of the 80s.”
Cedar Point is being leased from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The campsites offered primitive and roofed, screened wooden structures called hogans on 250 acres at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. The report from Kaleidoscope notes that the property has “significant” needs, including restrooms in “very poor condition” and “possible septic issue in future.”
Camp Butterfly, being retained, is on nearly 1,000 acres in Farmington, Mo. The Kaleidoscope report said it is a “beautiful large site with two lakes — nice beach with docks, decks and boardwalks” and has “interesting rock outcroppings” in addition to a number of cabin styles.
Whispering Oaks has three strikes on the Kaleidoscope report: limited use, significant capital required to increase capacity, and nearby neighbors. Camp Chan Ya Ta’s report specifies the proximity to Camp Torqua and location challenges, but also notes that the property has lake access and tent camping, two things that will need to be found elsewhere.
The Kaleidoscope report had four major categories in driving its determinations: location and membership; program goals; facility and property characteristics and viability.
Suggestions for camps Torqua, Wassatoga and Butterfly include new lodging, reclaiming challenge courses, considering volunteer initiatives to add program areas, and funding deferred maintenance projects. Kaleidoscope noted that Camp Wassatoga needs continued use and volunteer support, or the Council should “consider again the future of this property.”
“The key to considering the long range future of (Camp Butterfly) is the successful development of overnight destination programs serving the council … (or) the council should revisit the future of this property,” the report said.
Up to standards
Air conditioning and showers were two things listed as desirable by those who took an online survey earlier this year. Strobel said that despite promoting the survey through leadership, the http://www.gsofsi.org/ website, Facebook and Twitter, they had only about 1,000 responses.
“I know 3 percent is low, but I don’t know what else we could have done to get people to actually take the survey,” Strobel said.
The merger of several Girl Scout organizations, with each one bringing its own camp, into the GSSI meant at one time the area had eight camps. “That’s just too many camps for the population,” Apoo said. The rule of thumb is one camp for every 4,000 to 8,000 members.
“We have one camp for 2,200 girls (in Scouts), we can’t support that,” she said.
“As a result of having six camps, we were not able to bring up any one camp to today’s standards. If we want the newer, younger people to go camping, we have to provide them with air conditioning and clean showers.”
Rasheeda Williams was one such novice camper. “I slept the whole night in a camp chair because I have arachnophobia, but that did not deter me,” she said. Her daughter Mikayla Williams is a Brownie at Henry Raab Elementary.
“My daughter was able to camp outdoors and some of the camping skills that she learned she passed along to me,” Williams said. “She encouraged me to go on a second trip, and we’ve done that on our own... she’s always bringing up the camp experience.”
Williams is disappointed that Camp Chan Ya Ta is closing.
“Oh, my ... I really liked that one,” she said. “We had the campfire, they had the cabins, it was just a really good experience, my daughter still talks about it.”
The Williams family also went to Butterfly, with “more spiders, but it was fun.”
Herbstritt thinks there is more than reluctant novice campers that are reducing the camping numbers.
“They haven’t asked why they’re not camping. Truly it’s hard for leaders to go camping, you can’t go camping until you get all your training. If training available it limited, it makes it hard,” Herbstritt said.
She said troop leaders need to have CPR, first aid and AED training before a troop can go anywhere, and there are two types of camp training, depending on if there would be fire.
“As a service unit, we feel that if we could be trained for that, we could be more efficient,” Herbstritt said.
CEO Apoo said the goal in 2011 had been to bring up camp usage. Since February, the Council started a planning process to more deeply investigate camp use.
Strobel said GSSI requested proposals from camp experts in February to investigate. The winning bid, Kaleidoscope’s for $36,000, was about in the middle of bids that ranged up to $88,000.
The cost covered three people doing on-site visits to each camp, and travel to town hall meetings in addition to analysis and support, Strobel said.
Kaleidoscope representatives were at the first town hall meetings in May and June, where GSSI solicited comment. The online survey came later.
“The actual decision by the board of directors was made at their July 21 meeting, and it was a unanimous vote,” Strobel said.
Closures were announced at a second round of town hall meetings in August, as promised at the first round, Stroebel said.
“We owe these people,” Strobel said. “We looked them in the eye and said, ‘We’ll (announce) face to face. So that’s what we did.”
Still, campers are disappointed.
“You’re taking away the most important piece about scouting,” said Karen Schwoebel, whose daughter Kaylnn has been to all six camps with her troop. “You wonder if they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons, and if there aren’t other capital campaigns that could take place to preserve those locations.”
Number of “Camper Days” at GSSI camps in fiscal year 2013-2014
Chan Ya Ta 3757
Cedar Point 2589
Whispering Oaks 1487
Numbers provided by the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois Camp Properties Facility Planning and Assessment Summary Report
“Camper day” calculated as one girl on site for one day
Camp retirement dates
Sept. 30: Camp Whispering Oaks, Salem
Sept. 30, 2016: Camp Cedar Point, Makanda
18-24 months: Camp Chan Ya Ta, Worden