Camp Fire has been partnering with the Search Institute to help encourage key developmental relationships, especially in the context of marginalized communities. Camp Fire Columbia is in its third year of investigating innovative ways to strengthen connections through the Relationships for Outcomes Initiative (ROI). The project’s goals are to design intentional, inclusive relationship-building tools and strategies and to demonstrate how those relationships can improve youth outcomes and transform lives. The project is built around the Search Institute’s developmental relationships framework

Elizabeth Guzman Arroyo, Director of Teen Programs for Camp Fire Columbia, says they’ve seen higher retention rates and more student engagement as they’ve focused on building developmental relationships. One of the most effective strategies they’ve discovered is helping their staff integrate the framework into their supervision and communication styles.

“I’m a firm believer that we need to practice the things we are trying to teach our students,” says Elizabeth. “It’s so much easier to implement the framework with our students when it’s become our natural way of communicating.” 

They’ve also been learning how to pair other resources with the framework to make it as effective as possible. 

Elizabeth says combining the developmental relationship framework with proactive inclusivity is a powerful move: “The framework leads you in the right way, but you have to actively work toward inclusivity.” Camp Fire Columbia does ongoing training to ground its staff in inclusive practices, so they can approach developmental relationships knowing every individual will have different identities, needs, and barriers. 

They are also supplementing the project with professional development on mental health, trauma-informed care, and healing-centered practices. Elizabeth says that as her staff’s relationships with students grew stronger, the teens began sharing more about their lives. Sometimes that included discussing personal traumas, including sexual abuse and encounters with racism, transphobia, and more. 

“It can be triggering for our staff and their own traumas,” says Elizabeth, “so we needed to learn how to support our students in the best way we can while also taking care of our staff.”

As Camp Fire shares what we’ve learned from ROI with other councils, Elizabeth suggests remembering that this is hard work. As they were starting to focus on developmental relationships, most of her staff went through a period of time where they questioned whether they were “the right people for the job.” 

She says forming developmental relationships takes a lot of practice: “There’s always a new challenge or a new experience folks haven’t encountered before.”

Nikki agrees, saying, “It requires a commitment to be inclusive and intentional with relationships and a willingness to continuously engage in self-reflection.”

“They all came to a moment where they needed to decide whether they were willing to sit in this discomfort and continue to learn and grow…or not,” Elizabeth said. “But they all decided to stay, and now they are great at implementing developmental relationships.”

Camp Fire councils across the country now have online access to the Search Institute’s “Growing Developmental Relationships” course and an in-person application-based training module on developmental relationships designed for direct-care staff. 

“The ROI project will help us scale the best practices that have been found at Camp Fire Columbia and other partner organizations,” Nikki says, pointing out that the benefits extend beyond relationships staff build with youth in Camp Fire, but also to staff-to-staff and kid-to-kid connections. “The ROI project will give us the tools to build a truly relationship-rich organization—one where relationships are central to our work in helping young people reach their full potential, now and in the future.”