Though “amazing” is a fairly high-octane word, when Pat Madison, District Director, Camp Fire Gulf Wind, uses the word to describe some of the wins her council has celebrated over the past year, amazing isn’t quite up to the job.
“We’ve been on fire,” shared Pat. Have they ever! Between “owning” environmental education in their Pensacola, Fla., community; to seeing disgruntled teens put down their cell phones through introduction to Thrive{ology}; to out-of-the-box marketing that nets near-capacity program and camp registrations, Camp Fire Gulf Wind is a council busting at the seams with success stories.

Pat first shared the council’s recognition that traditional summer camp had become ho-hum. Many were delivering uninspired crafts and worn-out games that simply passed the time. Kids would get dropped off, run around for a few hours, then get picked up by their parents. When they did, the lack of enthusiasm in their children’s voices would cause them to regret making the summer camp decision they had made. Parents wanted options. Camp Fire Gulf Wind paid attention. In response to the need for relevant, spark-enticing summer camp, the council decided upon nature as their unifying theme and identifying distinction. “The best part of our decision,” shared Pat, “is that through Camp Fire our campers are now learning to be stewards of our environment.”

In a community (similar to most communities) that has an abundance of summer camp programs from which to choose (from ballet to computer to scholastic to soccer), Camp Fire has identified that one, unique, value-adding differentiator—connecting kids to nature. “Wild and Wise” has been the name of their summer camp program for the past four years and will continue to define and brand camping programs in the years ahead. “Wild” is a nod to Project Wild, a Florida Youth Conservation program (the council collaborates with the initiative), and “Wise” is pulled from the Camp Fire Wise Kids® curriculum. “Because of our name, it’s clear what we do,” said Pat. “We talk about, explore, and experience nature.” That’s branding well-defined and effectively applied.

She shared the story of being with a group of youngsters when they found a red velvet ant crawling on the camp grounds. Since it was an insect featured on a poster of Florida wildlife used by their camp curriculum, the kids were ecstatic. Eager to learn more, they encouraged Pat to “Google” the ant. She did and the kids were thrilled. In fact, the next morning, they excitedly brought in more research they’d done on their own. Talk about finding a spark!

Getting the word out about the good work Camp Fire is delivering requires ongoing attention. At Camp Fire Gulf Wind, the work is made easier through innovative thinking and a willingness to try new approaches to marketing. Pat explained the recent decision to contract with the council’s website provider in sending promotional, high-energy emails on subjects or programs that change monthly and/or seasonally. The emails are sent to anyone who visits the council’s site. “From interest and enrollments the email marketing program has generated,” explained Pat, “we’re busting at the seams.”

Yet it’s not only the email campaigns. The council also has an active presence on Facebook and all social media sites. “We make sure our youth are engaged and that the parents of youth can easily recognize how engaged they are,” shared Pat. Since all ideas are fair game for this innovative council, they’re even advertising on grocery carts in a store near one of their centers. “There’s a lot of competition for the same youth,” said Pat. “We’re just being proactive about getting in front of parents who make the decisions about how kids spend their out-of-school time.” The council’s willingness to try new ideas is paying off. Recently Executive Director La-Vonne Haven had to hire two more teachers to support the near-capacity Camp Fire out-of-school-time and preschool initiatives.

Of course, everything gets discussed and delivered through a growth mindset. Pat told the story of working with a group of youngsters who wanted to play a game, Ninja Warrior. Concerned about the appropriateness of the activity, she asked them for more information. “When they explained back to me what they wanted to do,” reflected Pat, with pride, “it was Thrive{ology}, at its best.”

A group of grade-school youth who had the growth mindset to support their confidence planned the game (one of executing skills through a playground challenge course), presented the plan, walked through the execution, and ran it. One of the best outcomes of the story was the fact that the kids even adapted their “race course” for a young girl who didn’t have the skills for all the challenges involved.

Another story illustrates the power of delivering Thrive{ology} through Teens in Action (TIA). A Pensacola community center was struggling with teen-focused summer programming. They contacted Camp Fire, who stepped in this past summer with TIA, as an accompaniment to the center’s program on employment skills development. Unfortunately, the motivated, passionate young man Camp Fire hired to lead the program became frustrated and discouraged after his first few days. The youth weren’t responding. “It was attitude over involvement,” shared Pat. “Staying connected to cell phones was more important than interacting with each other.” Pat encouraged the young leader to use the tools Thrive{ology} has in place—activities that engage youth and spark their interest and curiosity. So he did. Not only did the young teens respond and engage—eventually using their sparks to work within the program, including participation in employment advancement initiatives—their words of confidence, growth, self-awareness and courage were written on a poster presented at the end of the summer session. The young, passionate leader, frustrated just a few weeks earlier, teared up in pride.

Clearly, achieving success as a council in a society that’s packed with multiple options in youth programming is a challenge. It takes smart differentiation (branding), gutsy ideas (marketing) and a solid approach to program delivery (Thrive{ology}). Fortunately, Camp Fire Gulf Wind has all three—and then some.