Camp Fire Crackles With Excitement of Change : Youth Group’s New Focus Is to Show Boys and Girls How to Share the Future

Times Staff Writer

The chattering stopped as soon as Chance Campbell called the six Camp Fire boys to order so the Blue Birds could talk about genocide in Cambodia.

Camp Fire boys ? Talking about war and peace? That’s right.

Camp Fire, which is 75 years old this month, is emerging from a 13-year struggle to modernize its programs. “Wohelo” (for “ wo rk- he alth- lo ve”) is still there and so are the camping trips and service projects.

But Camp Fire’s national volunteer leadership, believing America’s future will be far different than its past, has added new focus and direction to its programs. And it’s added boys.


The national leadership believes that boys and girls must learn to be friends who work together on teams if they are to become successful adults in the Infotechnic Age.

In the past decade or so, all of the major national youth agencies--including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H, Junior Achievement, Girls Clubs, Boys Clubs and the Red Cross, YMCA and YWCA youth programs--altered their programs and policies, after their memberships plummeted during the early ‘70s.

But only Camp Fire Inc. decided to cut a such a drastic new path in the wilderness of changing American social values and economic pressures on family life.

Camp Fire’s national leadership decided in 1975, after a three-year-long internal review called “New Day,” to go co-ed and to expand its service from grade school and older girls to all youth from infants to age 21.

Camp Fire also rewrote its by-laws to grant considerable autonomy to its 300 local councils so long as they meet certain minimum standards of training, conduct and members wear the prescribed uniforms.

The national leadership also decided to go beyond clubs to develop new ways of delivering service. Today some of the 300 local Camp Fire councils run day-care centers, offer before- and after-school care at inexpensive rates, run “mega clubs” with 60 to 80 youngsters instead of the traditional six or eight in a club and help young people get started in the working world.

“We looked at the entire spectrum of youth-serving agencies and found not a single one that directed its program to both the boy and girl child as well as participation of mother and father,” said Phyllis Dolvin Schoedel, the president of Camp Fire Inc., who is an attorney in Spokane, Wash.

“As a predominantly female-oriented organization we also became caught up in the concern that so many women went through and vocalized in the late ‘60s and ‘70s about the sexist training we give in our society: the girl child only plays with dolls, the boy child only does certain things.

“As the woman emerged into more of a person than a stereotype, we recognized that as a very significant part of training today we need to teach young people to work together,” Schoedel said.

Added Evelyn de Ghetaldi of San Francisco, Camp Fire’s immediate past president and a key member of the New Day committee:

Separating the Sexes

“So often, in artificially separating the sexes in so many ways as our society does, we create a feeling in young people that the only reason a boy and girl should come together is for sex.”

For 30 years de Ghetaldi, as a physician practicing under the name Evelyn Ballard, counseled students at San Francisco State University about their sexual problems. “Often I have had college students tell me they do not know how to relate to the opposite sex except to have sex,” she said.

Her experiences with college students guided her to work on the New Day committee, de Ghetaldi said, and prompted her to initiate Camp Fire Inc.'s national policy on providing “age appropriate” advice on human sexuality to youngsters. She and others said Camp Fire adopted the policy in part because adult leaders of youth groups have always given such advice, but without any training or formal approval.

Juvenile Romances

Having gone co-ed, Camp Fire has also had to teach its volunteer leaders how to deal with juvenile romances. The national board adopted a policy in 1981 encouraging “age appropriate” instruction on human sexuality to complement parental guidance. The policy received near unanimous support from the 320 delegates to its national conference, although some councils have opted not to implement it, de Ghetaldi and other Camp Fire officials said.

The struggle to serve the future has cost Camp Fire the support of some volunteer leaders and has contributed to its continuing financial anemia.

Judith Erickson, a University of Minnesota researcher who has studied all of the major American youth organizations, contends that Camp Fire’s new program fits the emerging social and economic order more smoothly than that of the other major youth agencies.

But Erickson cautioned that Camp Fire has taken a “high risk” path fraught with continuing difficulties.

Carol Bittner, Camp Fire’s acting national executive director, said that “some people think we made a mistake. Girl Scouts, the YWCA and the Girls Clubs were all disappointed that we went co-ed. We don’t have as much of an affinity with them now.”

Today Camp Fire counts about 340,000 members, still well below its peak of 462,000 in 1968, but a modest improvement over the late ‘70s when membership slipped below 300,000. (By contrast, the Girl Scouts of the USA count 2.3 million members, down from 3.2 million in 1971, and the Boy Scouts of America count 3.5 million members, down from 4.8 million in 1971.)

The national Camp Fire organization operated on a Spartan budget of $3.5 million last year. Its headquarter’s building in Kansas City and its inventory of uniform items account for 85% of its $1.9 million in assets.

Light Funding

Camp Fire’s funding is so light that a 1968 change in uniforms caused a financial crisis that nearly sank the national organization when merchants returned $180,000 worth of unsold clothing from their stocks, Hester Turner, who was then the executive director, and others said. An emergency dues assessment raised $300,000 to cover the uniform change-over costs.

Next year Camp Fire plans to adopt new uniforms. Officials say they have no fear of another financial crisis.

On June 1, a former prosecutor, David Bahlmann of Philadelphia, will become only the second male national executive director of Camp Fire since before World War II. Bahlmann, currently executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, at a salary significantly below $100,000 annually. In contrast, some local Boy Scout executives make far more than that.

Small Staffs

Salaries for the small staffs of the local Camp Fire councils also lag significantly behind those of paid middle managers at Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Pat Wakelee, executive director of the Camp Fire Council in Cleveland, Ohio, said her staff gets paid $2,000 to $3,000 less annually than those holding comparable jobs at Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Schoedel, the national president, acknowledged poor salaries are a major problem, adding that raising more money is getting serious attention from the national board.

Teaching Peace

Now, at the direction of its national board, Camp Fire is starting to teach peace, from a personal to a global level.

The organization, founded in 1910 by some of the leading lights of progressive education, was begun as a distaff complement to the Boy Scouts of America, whose British founder conceived of scouting to prepare boys for war.

“Camp Fire started not as a carbon copy of Boy Scouts but as something for women,” said Turner, who served as national executive director for 12 years before retiring in 1978. “Camp Fire has a great sense of women being nurturers who tended the fire, strong in spirit. The leadership wanted women who could tromp in the woods, even in bloomers, and could also pour tea in the parlor, who would be able to swim and canoe and also be very feminine and ladylike.”

Mary Rothschild, an Arizona State University historian who has spent six years researching a book on Girl Scouts, said that in its early days, Camp Fire, then by far the larger organization, and Girl Scouts were quite different.

Sold War Bonds

“The Girl Scouts were very militaristic with lots of bugling and marching in World War I preparedness parades. Girl Scouts sold millions of dollars worth of war bonds. Camp Fire was not involved in that sort of thing,” Rothschild said.

“I have letters from women who were in both Camp Fire and Girl Scouts in that era, some of them very telling . . . (about) the tremendous differences. Their evaluations always came down to the spiritual qualities of Camp Fire versus the more pragmatic, what I call more feminist vision, of Girl Scouts.”

She said the psychological makeup of people drawn to Camp Fire “may well be different” than that of people drawn to Girl Scouts. “Over and over again both Camp Fire and Girl Scout supporters talk about the psychological differences between Camp Fire and Girl Scouts. Camp Fire is much more spiritual, much more emotional.”

Both Camp Fire and Girl Scouts were started with a notion of “women’s moral superiority, which dictated that women should guide men on the true path towards spiritual development,” she said.

Progressive Education

Rothschild noted that Camp Fire was formed by “a committee of very important educators who were in the hotbed of progressive education, all heavy duty people in terms of progressive education.” Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, who later headed the Russell Sage Foundation and was a noted turn-of-the-century expert on physical education and recreation for children, his wife Charlotte Vetter Gulick and Ernest Thompson Seaton were among Camp Fire’s early leaders.

Camp Fire and Girl Scouts explored a merger in the 1920s and even tried a pilot merger in Nebraska that evaluators said worked just fine. But Camp Fire would not accept the changes necessary to merge with the smaller Girl Scouts. (In the ‘30s, Eleanor Roosevelt also tried to engineer a merger of the two girl-serving organizations, but failed.)

Meanwhile, the Girl Scouts came under attack from American Boy Scout leaders who wanted to further Camp Fire. The Boy Scouts even sued the Girl Scouts in a failed effort to make them become the “Girl Guides.”

The Girl Scouts decided to fight rather than submit and developed a strong funding base and staff leadership. Peter Drucker, the management guru, has called Girl Scouts the “best run organization” in America.

Camp Fire, perhaps because it lacked any foe and was gently nurtured by Boy Scout leaders, continued along, its staff poorly paid, its membership growing modestly and its finances always precarious, until Girl Scouts became the dominant girl-serving organization.

Vietnam War Years

By the Vietnam War years, when all of the youth agencies began wondering whether they were relevant, Camp Fire decided to take some bold new steps.

Karen Barts, Camp Fire’s national program director, said during the New Day study period of 1972-75: “We looked at what was happening in society and what would happen in the future in terms of what boys and girls were going to be needing. Men and women in the future were going to have to be more flexible in how they approached their lives. You could no longer assume because you were a girl what you would do as a woman.

“We concluded that boys and girls, men and women, were going to need to be able to relate as equals, to be caring, competent, confident people. And we also concluded that they were going to have to inter-relate as partners, not competitors, not as one being the boss over the other. So we changed our program to meet those needs.”

Roberta Van der Voort, a United Way of America vice president who was Camp Fire executive director in 1978-82, said in New Day, “The real question volunteers wanted to answer is: What the world would be like that these kids are going to grow up into? Are we teaching the kinds of skills and attitudes that will match the world these kids are going to be part of?

Single-Parent Family

“The volunteers wanted to look at the single-parent family phenomenon, at the meaning of smaller families and of lots of kids growing up without brothers and sisters. They wanted to know what it would mean for most youngsters to not be in a family where you had a lot of kids you grew up with, negotiated with, fought with,” Van der Voort said.

Schoedel said the predominance of smaller families means youth organizations are vital to giving children experience in negotiating and relating to their peers.

The changes Camp Fire has made and is still making to cope with this vision of America’s future could be observed in two recent Camp Fire club meetings.

In Altadena, Chance Campbell, 11, moved through the Blue Bird’s agenda with smooth confidence and skill. Then the boys discussed their outing a few days before to see “The Killing Fields,” the powerful film about revolution and genocide in Cambodia.

Michael Edwards said he and the other boys had joined Camp Fire “to learn to become leaders so when we grow up we can lead the world and stop war.”

In Monterey Park, several Camp Fire clubs meet jointly each week in a school auditorium after classes end at Robert Hill Lane School.

“Camp Fire appeals to many families because the whole family--mom and dad, boys and girls, can all be involved,” said Terri Fowler, a Camp Fire organizer. In the past two years she has helped Camp Fire expand in the largely Latino Eastside of Los Angeles from two clubs to 26.

Judith Erickson of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Youth Development and Research, noted that as American economic conditions have changed so have youth groups.

She said youth groups first gained popularity in this country during the social upheaval of the Jacksonian Age, were nurtured by temperance advocates and churches in the 1800s and then went through major transformations with the rise of mass industrial employment in the early 1900s.

Boy Scouts, Camp Fire, Girl Scouts, Junior Achievement, 4-H, the youth programs of the Red Cross, YMCAs and YWCAs all started within a few years of each other beginning in 1910, Erickson said.

“The family unit was once an economic unit where everyone contributed to economic well-being of the family. Then youth organizations were co-ed.

“But when women were separated out, put on pedestals and men went out to work and kids to school, that economic unit was fragmented and recreation patterns followed.

Co-ed Recreation

“Now we are back to an economic unit with both parents working or parents and adolescents working, and you have a whole new picture and recreation will be increasingly co-ed,” she said.

With the New Day program, Erickson said, “Camp Fire has taken a different path from the other agencies. . . . Every one of the major youth organizations, between 1970 and the present, has one way or the other made basic decisions about how to adapt to the future. . . .

“In terms of society and its needs I see no fundamental flaws in the direction Camp Fire is going,” Erickson said.

“But in terms of the organization it was high risk. I’m not sure they will survive it, to be honest,” Erickson said, voicing a view not shared by any of the two dozen other people interviewed about Camp Fire.

Erickson, who worked for Camp Fire in Minneapolis in 1961-66, said the New Day concept “is not shared universally throughout their local organization. A lot of local leaders felt very threatened and it was sort of ‘over our dead bodies.’ They have gotten by that fight.

“But at the time they launched New Day they did not have the necessary supporting materials. . . , they did not have nonsexist handbooks, costumes, or completely re-oriented training materials, and so they got caught in too long of a transitional period. They lost a lot of people,” Erickson said.

“I believe all of our councils are now embracing the boy child,” Schoedel said. “It has been painful. You have 70 years of structure and suddenly you make changes and the dynamics are not as well communicated to the local leaders as the could have been. It has led to some wounds. But I see some great healing in the past few years.”

group, page one