Lighting the Spark: 5 Questions with Camp Fire CEO Cathy Tisdale

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Camp Fire - IAbsolutely Incredible Kid Day

On March 14 at 10:00 am, amazing young students across the U.S. rallied teachers, parents, friends and advocates to participate in a school walkout to honor those killed at Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida. It’s apropos that today, March 15, is Absolutely Incredible Kid Day, an initiative started more than 20 years ago by the nonprofit organization Camp Fire to celebrate and support young people.

Camp Fire was founded in 1910 as Camp Fire Girls of America, the first non-sectarian organization for girls in the United States. Boy Scouts had been created six months prior and one of its founders, Dr. Luther Gulick, recognized there was no comparable organization for girls. It would become the first systemic opportunity for girls to be outdoors and learn the same skills as boys. The organization became co-ed in 1975 and rebranded to Camp Fire Boys and Girls. In 2001, it became Camp Fire USA and then, in 2012, Camp Fire.

Today, Camp Fire provides programs for children and teens, with an emphasis on youth between the ages of 5 and 17, and directly engages more than 150,000 young people in youth-directed programs. Camp Fire links children with caring, trained adults in a small group atmosphere, while also linking families with each other in their own communities. This means it actually serves more than one million youth and their family members annually with more than 30 million program hours.

Cathy TisdaleNicole Diamant of InterbrandHealth chatted with Cathy Tisdale (right), President & CEO, to hear more about how Camp Fire supports America’s youths, today and every day.

Any brand with a mission to embolden and empower our youth is heart-warming—and many great organizations out there take on this challenge. What’s something about the Camp Fire brand that you think uniquely positions it to guide and generate leadership in young people?

I would point to a couple of things. First is our focus on youth success now. Many organizations talk about developing youth into future leaders or to be ready for future academic success, which is great. Yet we know they’re not waiting for “someday”—they’re impacting their schools, homes and communities right now! So our goal is to help youth thrive and be the best 7-year-olds, or 17-year-olds, they can be, which becomes a good barometer of their future success.

Second, we’ve actually named and “branded” our research-based program framework. We call it Thrive{ology}, or the “Science of Thriving.” Thrive{ology} is composed of four elements that are shown to help youth thrive over time: 1) Finding your Spark (skills, interests, personal attributes); 2) Developing a growth mindset (learning to keep trying, how to push past obstacles); 3) Goal Management Skills (how to set and measure goals, or adjust/“shift gears” when things aren’t working); and 4) Reflection (taking time to think through what worked, what didn’t and why).

The most important way we know we’re having the intended impact is because youth tell us. We often hear things like: “At Camp Fire, I feel like my voice matters.” “I feel respected and included.” “No one makes fun of me.” “I can be whomever I want to be.” “I get to meet people who are different from me.” “I try things I’ve never had the courage to try before.” “I’ve learned that you don’t have to be born with talent to learn how to be good at something.” Parents and families confirm how important these things are when choosing out-of-school programs for their children to participate in.

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I loved reading in your bio that you spent an important part of your career with the Girl Scouts. I had the pleasure of interviewing Frances Hesselbein about her work in shaping leaders of tomorrow with that organization. What did you bring from your work with the Girls Scouts to Camp Fire? How did it inspire, drive you or make you think differently about leadership?

Frances is a sheer force of nature and has been ahead of her time in so many ways! She believes deeply that every girl from every walk of life should have the opportunity to be all she can be. And she saw Girl Scouts as an important champion of and vehicle for all girls.

I carried that conviction with me to Camp Fire. Since we’re co-ed, that approach expands to include every kind of kid from every kind of family and every walk of life. It has been one way to honor and amplify Camp Fire’s legacy commitment to diversity and inclusion and our belief that young people can shape the world right now given the proper support, tools and opportunities.

One additional driver for me has been that while I believe in the power of the single gender experience for many young people, I also recognize that the problems in our communities and across society will only be addressed when everyone, regardless of gender, works together to solve them. So an organization like Camp Fire, with its focus on helping youth find and lift their collective voice, can be a catalyst for helping them learn how to engage and interact with one another beyond just the traditional—or maybe stereotypical—socializing that occurs.

The lesson Frances leaves for us all, and the benefit of my Girl Scout experience, is that sometimes leadership requires great courage and a readiness to blaze a trail that does not yet exist. And, most important, that you cannot do it alone. It truly does “take a village” of committed individuals—whose many separate voices ultimately unite into one strong, collective voice for the common good.

2017 was an incredible year at Camp Fire ! Let's make 2018 EVEN BETTER!!

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Camp Fire has a strong legacy of inclusion and diversity, being the first multiracial, multicultural, and nonsectarian organization for girls (boys were included as of 1975). How has the brand’s mission and vision evolved over time? Are there any challenges that Camp Fire faces to maintain its leadership? And how can Camp Fire play a role in today’s divisive environment?

It’s important to note that Camp Fire was founded 11 years before women gained the vote in this country. Yet from the beginning, our founders instilled in girls the idea that there were no limits to what they could achieve—at home, in the workplace or as citizens—if they were willing to work hard, lead healthy lives through connection with nature and the natural world, and build strong and healthy relationships with others.

I meet Camp Fire alums as young as 25 and as old as 101. They all tell some version of the same story—how their cumulative Camp Fire experiences, and the lifelong friends made, have contributed to the people they have become.

What does that legacy, dating back to 1910, look like in 2018? I would say our mission and vision has never changed but the way we carry it out must reflect the times in which we live. The leadership challenge Camp Fire faced over the last 20 years was in not staying ahead of the trends within families and not being on top of changing interests among and demands on young people.

In other words, the marketplace changed but Camp Fire did not. We’ve spent the last eight years reframing how we do what we do to and, as important, how we talk about it—to be more reflective of the demands on families at every socio-economic level and to reflect the unprecedented challenges and opportunities that young people face today.

Camp Fire

We’ve talked a lot about Camp Fire’s role in this polarized and divisive environment. How do we stand up for our core values and principles and yet not appear to be politicizing the dialogue? How do we reinforce messages about “youth voice” and the power of inclusion when many kids hear just the opposite at home or at school or in their communities? And how do we reinforce the uniqueness of every kid when social media turns bullying into a 24/7 “sport” that harms kids—sometimes with tragic results?

Our founders Dr. Luther and Charlotte Gulick created Camp Fire to help youth on their “journey to self-discovery”. So we will continue to provide safe and inclusive spaces where all are welcome. Go to any one of our 1,300 program sites and you’ll meet a wide variety of young people and adults. We champion the fact that today’s families (and our workforce) come in many “colors, shapes and sizes”.

Camp Fire cannot change society, but we do know that if young people learn how to grow into their full, best selves over time—with adult champions assisting them along the way—they will approach one another and the challenges around them differently. They will listen and learn from one another. They will reflect together on the best ways to achieve their goals, and they will grow to respect and care about those who are most unlike them. Our job at Camp Fire is to create the space and the means for that to happen and to support their families and teachers in that process.

We are so encouraged by the growing conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion nationwide. It takes courage to have the conversations that must be had and yet it’s the only path forward. And we are excited to see the young people in Florida, and now around the country, stand up for themselves and demand to be heard. They really can, and will, shape their world right now.

We started this interview discussing Camp Fire’s Absolutely Incredible Kid Day®. I can’t help but think with today’s political climate and the upcoming March for Our Lives how many truly incredible kids we do have in this country. Tell me more about the roots and impact of this initiative.

You hit the nail on the head! When Camp Fire created Absolutely Incredible Kid Day® in 1997, the idea was to activate adults and older teens to write a letter to a young person and tell them what makes them incredible. It’s even more important today that we stop and take time to acknowledge the kids in our lives. 24/7 access to social media and negative new cycles has contributed significantly to the increase in bullying and mental health issues among youth from every walk of life. These are issues truly “blind” to class and socio-economic status.

Young people need our encouragement more than ever. We all want to be seen, heard and supported. The upcoming March for Our Lives and walkouts provide a real opportunity for adults to demonstrate to young people that we see them, hear them and value what they have to say.

Finally, I’d love to hear your take on how vocal and active our young people have become and what you think it means for our future.

Yes! I’m so glad you brought this up. In 2012, part of the culmination of our market research was to rethink the traditional notion of a Mission Statement, which every organization has, and almost no one knows what it means! We reframed it as “OUR PROMISE” to signify a higher level of accountability to young people and their families. People may not know what a mission stands for but everyone knows what it means when a promise is made.

Ours reflected everything we learned over 15 months and our legacy: Young people want to shape the world. Camp Fire provides the opportunity to find their spark, lift their voice and discover who they are. In Camp Fire, it begins now. Light the fire within. This why you’ll never hear us speak of helping youth become “future leaders.” They are leading now, with or without a “title,” and they absolutely know they can make the world a better place right now. What they desperately want and need from the adults in their lives is effective guidance and support, tools and resources—and the opportunity to try.


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