Camp Fire is turning 100 this year, and its mission still burns bright

In the humid heat of a summer midmorning, the kids at Camp El Tesoro are riding horses. They're learning archery and skimming rocks across the shallow water of a creek near Granbury and the Brazos River. It's quiet, peaceful, far removed from the sounds of cars and electronic gadgets. With a gentle breeze carrying children's happy shouts, it feels like a step back in time.

In a way, it is. The summer camp is one of Camp Fire USA's programs for youth, and Camp Fire children have been paddling canoes, building fires and learning to identify trees for 100 years.

Campers still skim rocks and sleep in rustic cabins, but Camp Fire isn't the same quaint girls' group it was back in 1910. It has opened its doors to boys. It has changed its programming to reach kids who are underprivileged, kids who have busy parents, families that need support. Songs and uniforms have taken a back seat to after-school programs and kindergarten readiness. As childhood has changed, this youth organization has evolved with it.

Camp Fire turns 100 this year, and close behind is the First Texas Council in Fort Worth, which was the first in Texas -- and one of the first in the nation -- when it was created in 1914. As the group celebrates, we take a look back at its first century. It's an organization full of history and tradition. But it has always been a bit ahead of its time.

'Seek beauty. Give service. Pursue knowledge.'

For those of you who haven't checked in for 35 years, Camp Fire is no longer a group for girls. Those Camp Fire Girls in their vests haven't been Camp Fire Girls since the 1970s, when the organization went co-ed. And the group offers -- to girls and boys -- programs that a 1910 world would never have anticipated.

But the founding of Camp Fire Girls was groundbreaking in its own way. The organization was started by a couple that wanted girls to have the same opportunities that boys enjoyed through the Boy Scouts.

Luther and Charlotte Gulick created Camp Fire Girls the same year that the Boy Scouts of America was formed. As Charlotte Gulick told The New York Times in 1912, boys had always had access to organized activities -- but "[g]irls have had nothing of the sort."

"Boys have many things to do," she said, but "few new things have been worked out for girls, while so many of the old activities have lost their usefulness, and, therefore, their magic."

The Gulicks wanted to give girls a chance to learn skills, to work in groups and to build character. Girls formed groups, checked off a list of goals and challenges, and earned recognition for "handwork, home work, entertaining, sports" and more. The "Law of the Camp Fire Girls" was as follows: "Seek beauty. Give service. Pursue knowledge. Be trustworthy. Hold on to health. Glorify work. Be happy."

The skills required to be a Camp Fire Girl included "mend a pair of stockings" and "commit to memory any good poem or song," but they also required girls to know how to handle basic medical emergencies and "to know the career of some woman who has done much for the country or state."

"Before women were even able to vote, Camp Fire was encouraging young girls to take leadership roles, to serve their communities," says Geri Elsen, vice president of program and council services for Camp Fire USA at its headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

The organization stayed much the same for its first few decades. But after World War II, as American life began to change, so did American childhood. Camp Fire changed right along with it.

Zem Neill, who didn't participate in Camp Fire as a child but who has been president and CEO of Camp Fire's First Texas Council since 1978, has seen the organization evolve.

"If you were a Camp Fire Girl in our traditional program in 1950, you might look at the program today and really wish it looked the same as it did when you were involved," she says. "But how many things look the same in 2010 as they did in 1950? I think the organization has responded to that, and that's one reason we're still around."

Beads and confidence

Although Camp Fire's earliest programs were designed to teach "the real art of home making," by the 1950s, it was doing much more. Ginger Lawhon of Fort Worth, a Camp Fire Girl in the 1950s, remembers sewing projects. But she also remembers water sports and swimming challenges. She remembers candy sales as a lesson in business.

"Girls at that time learned how to keep up with money, how to approach people to sell a product, to be courteous -- and it was competitive," Lawhon says.

Lawhon attended Camp Fire meetings after school. Her group was led by the mother of one of her friends at Meadowbrook Elementary in Fort Worth. The girls would take turns bringing snacks. They sold candy door to door every year. They earned beads and emblems for completing tasks and learning new skills.

Being a Camp Fire Girl, Lawhon says, gave her confidence and organization. It also, she says, was "an opportunity to set goals and see semi-immediate results, to take pride in what you had achieved -- and there was the camaraderie of your club."

Exploring nature

Lawhon's generation was, perhaps, the last of the old-fashioned Camp Fire Girls. By 1960 -- two years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring , 10 years before the first Earth Day -- the organization began to focus on conservation and the environment. Camp Fire marked its 50th anniversary with a tree-planting campaign called "She Cares ... Do You?" Camp Fire Girls planted 2 million trees across the country and raised awareness about conservation. The project earned a commemorative stamp from the U.S. Postal Service.

Now that environmentalism is a primary issue, Camp Fire is even more determined to help kids understand and care about the environment, says Jane Lovedahl, director of curriculum development for the First Texas Council's outdoor education program.

And to really understand and care about the Earth, she says, "they must experience the natural world."

Kids spend increasing amounts of time interacting with (or just gazing at) a screen, and, well, it's harder for most children to spend time exploring the outdoors.

"My mom had no qualms whatsoever about my sister and I going out on our bikes with a picnic lunch and being gone all day," she says. "Now you just don't do that."

Lovedahl has developed curriculum units that focus on fossils. Birds. Trees and leaves. Weather. Astronomy. Animal habitats. And she often witnesses a child seeing a fossil for the first time, or examining a spider web, with new interest -- and a new appreciation.

"That's the whole premise, on a very sincere and deep level," she says. "Unless we teach our community to know and love these things, it's going to be impossible for them to make decisions" that are good for the environment.

Welcoming the boys

In the 1970s, Camp Fire took its biggest leap forward and made a change that would alter the name and the very identity of the organization: The 65-year-old group went co-ed. American life was changing, and Camp Fire wasn't going to be left behind.

"There were more mothers going back to work, more single-parent families," Elsen says. Schedules were busier, so all children needed programs to help them bond with and learn from their friends.

"The leadership of Camp Fire," Neill said, "felt that children needed the opportunity to relate to each other in social settings and learn leadership together."

The inclusion of boys was a little slow, but today, 35 years later, participation is roughly half-and-half.

The change altered Camp Fire's identity, if not its soul. The Camp Fire image -- all those fresh-faced girls in their uniforms -- would never be the same. But Camp Fire's decision to go coed made a statement: This organization would stay relevant by including and adapting, not by hanging onto the past.

"Our generations are different," Elsen says. "Think about Generation X and this next generation. ... Think about how quickly youths' interests change -- different technology, different interests, different ways of work. If we are going to serve each generation effectively, we have to stay on top of those trends."

Where the kids are

For all its progress, Camp Fire has kept a fairly low national profile. Many people still confuse Camp Fire with the Girl Scouts.

In fact, Camp Fire's new national CEO came from the Girl Scouts organization. Cathy Tisdale started her new job in June after three years as a Girl Scouts vice president. She, too, has been asking the question: What makes Camp Fire different from the Scouts and other youth organizations?

Tisdale's conclusion: It's the diversity of the population Camp Fire serves.

"All organizations say they strive to be diverse and represent the diversity of the community they serve," she says. "And all organizations say they want to be inclusive. But it strikes me that the history and the tradition of Camp Fire is particularly observable in that way."

Camp Fire was never racially segregated, and it has never been affiliated with any religion or political movement. But instead of merely allowing children of different backgrounds to join, Camp Fire has actively sought out diversity, offering programs for kids of all races and economic levels.

In 1952, before the civil rights movement, even before Brown v. Board of Education, Camp Fire Girls drafted a statement calling for more diversity and more inclusiveness in its membership. By the mid-'60s, the group was offering programs that targeted girls in low-income homes. In the late 1960s, Camp Fire Girls began to develop after-school programs, starting with some trial programs in Chicago.

"We knew that, to be able to reach children in urban settings and inner-city developments, we could not go in with traditional programming that was not attractive to them," Tisdale says. "It was not appropriate [and] it was not convenient."

Branching out

So after-school programming was born. If there wasn't an adult who could volunteer to lead a group, Camp Fire worked to find and train a leader. Meetings were offered at schools instead of homes. Those experiments in the 1960s eventually grew into an established after-school program at councils nationwide. Today, the majority of Camp Fire programs are after-school sessions designed to give kids enrichment and a safe place to spend afternoons.

Neill saw the changes happening here. Children had single parents or two parents with full-time jobs. The old model -- with kids gathering at a friend's home for a leisurely afternoon meeting -- just didn't make it possible for most kids to get involved.

"Kids needed something every day," Neill says, "not once a week or twice a month. They needed to be involved or engaged in meaningful ways every day after school."

Camp Fire was sometimes the only organization going into schools and community centers and setting up safe after-school programs. Today, Tisdale says, "it's not unusual to see Camp Fire, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters," all working together to offer kids options after school.

Being inclusive, Tisdale says, means different things as society has changed. In 2003, the group began to offer parts of its curriculum in Spanish. Today, some councils work with kids who are gay, offering programs that let them feel like they are "part of the group and accepted as who they are." And the First Texas Council offers an annual grief camp at El Tesoro, a weeklong program that helps kids who have suffered a loss feel understood.

As she started work last month, Tisdale says, "a staff member told me: 'We start with kids from where they are and help lead them forward to whatever path they choose for themselves.'"

'Ahead of the curve'

As time goes by, Camp Fire looks less and less like the girls' club of 100 years ago. And that's a good thing, says Lawhon, who is a former Camp Fire board member and council president. (She also has served on the foundation board and is helping to steer a capital campaign to update the 76-year-old Camp El Tesoro.)

Lawhon's two daughters were Camp Fire girls, but by the time they joined in the 1980s and 1990s, the organization was coed. Her daughters had a rich experience, but it wasn't exactly like hers.

"As with everything," she says, "people say, 'Things aren't the way they used to be.' But it just doesn't work that way now."

Lawhon is all for progress. She has seen what's going on at Diamond Hill Station, where kids get to learn, play and eat a nutritious snack in a safe place after school. She points to the Child Care and Development Center that helps young kids develop skills and learn, and to the summer day camps that provide daytime child care while giving kids a taste of traditional camp activities.

Camp Fire, Lawhon says, has been "so forward-thinking, so ahead of the curve." As a child, she learned lessons from Camp Fire that lasted. By moving along with the changes in society, Lawhon says, Camp Fire makes those lessons, those experiences accessible to kids of all backgrounds.

But for all the progress and adaptation, some things stay the same.

Camp El Tesoro, the First Texas Council's 228-acre property near Granbury, is a little bit of the past preserved for kids to still enjoy. No matter how hectic kids' lives become, that camp along the Brazos River -- which serves about 4,000 people every year -- is a quiet place that offers escape and a place to grow.

Toni Hooten -- another former Camp Fire Girl -- started going to camp at El Tesoro when she was 5. She had a single mom and had never been away from home, but that summer her mom's supervisor at work paid for Hooten to spend a week at camp. Hooten was hooked.

"I lived for camp," she says. "I would live for coming here in the summer, and I couldn't wait."

She went horseback riding. Swimming. She played games and met other campers who would become lifelong friends.

"I had so much responsibility and independence and freedom," Hooten says. "I learned a lot from that."

Hooten never stopped spending her summers at El Tesoro. She grew up and started working as an assistant director, and eventually she became the camp's director.

"I work hard at keeping it traditional," Hooten says. There are no cellphones at camp, no e-mail. There aren't many modern conveniences, including air-conditioned cabins. But instead, there's peace and quiet. There's a slowness to life. There's a chance to pay attention and be children.

Not long ago, Hooten says, the father of a young camper showed her why he was sending his child to camp.

"He opened a screen door and it slammed," she recalls. "He said, 'We don't have screen doors, and this reminds me of my grandmother's house. I want my child to experience this.'"

Ann Sheets, the First Texas Council's senior vice president of administration and finance, recalls the story of a girl who was spending the night at El Tesoro for the first time. Far away from the city lights she was used to, Sheets says, the girl looked up at the night sky and murmured, "So this is where they keep the stars."

Camp Fire USA enters its second century with a firm hold on its past. And a finger on the pulse of the future, working to stay one step ahead of whatever might come.

ALYSON WARD, 817-390-7988