But what does belonging feel like?

Creating belonging is a moral good, sure, but sometimes we need to take a second to remember just how good belonging feels. When have you experienced the power of belonging? 

We talk a lot about belonging at Camp Fire. It’s woven into our values. (We are inclusive. We work to create safe and inclusive environments, so everyone feels welcome.) It’s an important goal of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA) work. And it doesn’t just happen – it’s intentionally cultivated and worth celebrating! So this month, we’re sharing three powerful stories of belonging from our community. Grab your favorite beverage, curl up in the hammock, and meet Malachi, Leo, and Kim…

Malachi’s Story 

Camp Fire Central Puget Sound  

As told by his mom, Whitney 

Malachi is a medically-complex, non-speaking, wheelchair user. He loves music and dancing. He participates in a weekly drum circle. He loves books and having books read to him. He LOVES camping and exploring new places.  

Malachi Riding Bikes Camping in Nashville - March 2023

I registered my son Malachi for Camp Fire as soon as he turned five. What drew us most to Camp Fire was the inclusive nature and principled mission of the organization. 

A top priority in identifying the best youth programs for our family is to find those that are inclusive and value accessible participation and flexibility. It was important to our family, too, that “disability” identity was specifically called out in the organization’s Statement of Inclusion, that the group was committed to accessibility in their programming, and that a virtual pathway to participation was available. 

In our family, we believe that we are all always learning and improving in matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. We want Malachi’s identity as a Disabled person to be celebrated and for his unique perspective to be valued. We wanted him to be part of a group that welcomes and celebrates youth of all genders and members from other backgrounds, cultures and experiences. That commitment to inclusion, coupled with an honest curiosity and willingness to learn and grow together, was an essential factor for us in choosing a youth development organization for him. 

Malachi is registered with Central Puget Sound Council of Camp Fire as an Independent Member, giving him access to all of the same curriculum and resources as any group, along with the ability to participate in special events of his choosing, while maximizing the flexibility of his participation to accommodate both his access needs and our family’s frequent travel and outdoor adventures. As an Independent Member, I get to support Malachi all along the way, as he works through his Starflight curriculum and begins earning emblems for his learning goals and achievements. We are thrilled to be part of the Camp Fire program and look forward to watching our little guy grow and learn along the way. 

Malachi and family

Leo’s Story 

Camp Fire Camper 

My first time at camp was in 2018. It wasn’t just my first time to go to a Camp Fire camp, it was my first time to go to any camp. But I felt it was the year to try because it was the first time Camp Fire was offering the LGBTQ+ session. At first, I was a little nervous, but by the end of the week, I had done things I had never tried before (like rappelling and kayaking) and met people who shared the same experiences without any judgment. 

I returned to camp the next summer and was excited to attend for a longer time. I wanted more of the experiences of the previous summer. Now that I was past the nervousness, I wanted to spend more time learning the other water activities and go rappelling again. Unfortunately, because of flooding I couldn’t repel again, but that was all the more reason to come to camp again. That year I also made more connections, and the friendships were ones I kept in contact with over the next year, which turned out to be more important than I imagined. 

When COVID shut everything down, it was some of those friendships that I leaned on. You can also imagine my disappointment when camp shut down in 2020. It was a long year! In 2021, my brother and I returned to camp. I was so excited to be back. Camp is a place where you can learn new things, really be yourself, meet amazing people, and know the counselors are there to help you along the way. 

When I was younger, I lost my sense of self for a while. Because of Camp Fire, I have re-found my confidence, become more social, and can see myself in this world. My Camp Fire story is going to keep going as this summer I will be returning as a camp counselor, and my brother is starting his Counselor-In-Training program. I remember what that first summer felt like and all that I have gained from camp, and I want everyone who comes to have the same incredible experience. 

Kim’s Story 

Camp Fire Alaska Parent 

As an adult black woman with a young black daughter, I wanted to make sure my child was seen and having a positive experience at Camp Fire. I grew up here in Alaska, and I know what it feels like to be one of few, to feel different, to go out of the way to be seen. That was my experience. The instructors and educators who saw me made a world of difference in my life at a time where it was so crucial to my development and positive self-image. 

About three weeks in, I just asked her: Do you like Camp Fire? And she said no. I looked at her in the rearview mirror, and she said: I love it. As time went on she shared with me more about the friends she was making, funny conversations she was having with camp counselors because she’s an only child and also enjoys adult conversation, and her new love for swimming – another one of those activities I could never quite get her to take an interest in. She actually asked for swimming lessons! 

And that’s not all she asked for. She asked to go back to Camp Fire next summer, and that’s what we plan to do. We found Camp Fire to be a place rich with diversity of life experience, race, gender, ethnicity, ability, geographic location – so much more that was a plus for my family. We value diversity. Camp Fire impressed me on so many levels: their obvious commitment to the happy development of young children, helping to prepare parents who are new to their programs, and their very clear efforts toward diversity and inclusion. That doesn’t happen by chance. It has happened because Camp Fire has been thoughtful and because they select and prepare great people as part of their staff.  

I know my child is in good hands, and for that I am grateful. I consider myself among the many ambassadors for this organization who has nurtured our precious future leaders and done it so well, for so long. Thank you, Camp Fire. 

Learn more about Camp Fire’s commitment to belonging:  

Creating a Just Organization Through Distributed Leadership: A conversation with LaSheé Thomas and Nikki Roe Cropp

Originally posted by Shawna Rosenzweig May 10, 2023

I believe anyone can lead from anywhere in an organization. Actual leadership has little to do with title or position and more to do with influence. At Camp Fire, our definition of leadership and shared power also includes young people in the decision-making process AND a distributed leadership model that goes beyond the individual. Enter Just HQ. 

At Camp Fire National Headquarters, Just HQ is a voluntary, employee-led group of leaders focused on championing the inclusive, equity-driven organizational culture and learning environment we want and seek. Just HQ does this through leading biweekly Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) staff meetings on different relevant topics, facilitating reflection and intentional conversation, inviting guest speakers (most recent was someone from the Anti-Defamation League to talk to us about Antisemitism), touching on a ‘This Day in History’, actionable Land Acknowledgment, conducting regular culture surveys, and helping keep us accountable to our values. This grassroots initiative makes a positive difference to all of our employees, affiliates, and the youth and families we serve. By creating the conditions where employees and staff feel safe and supported to learn, lead, and thrive, they are, in turn, strengthening the ecosystem that offers youth the same conditions. We know DEIA doesn’t just happen, and Just HQ is a way for us to intentionally prioritize it and bake this value into our culture and organization. We are all on a continual learning journey.

I had a great conversation with two Just HQ members and leaders, Nikki Roe Cropp and LaSheé Thomas, who are working toward a better culture at Camp Fire. We talked about their experience so far on the small but mighty team and what they are learning individually and as a group. 


Shawna: For those who aren’t familiar with Just HQ, could you share what it is and why you wanted to be a part of it?

Nikki: Just HQ was formed to champion an engaged, positive organizational culture and to move us forward in our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. We believe that they are very much intertwined.

LaSheé: I would add that Just HQ is staff-led, so you get all of these voices at the table from multiple levels in the organization. That was extremely important to me and one of the reasons I volunteered to join. I have a strong personal belief that the more voices at the table, the better. 

Nikki: Compared to other staff engagement committees I’ve been a part of at other organizations, this feels more meaningful. It’s more than having a hot dog day to show appreciation for staff. We are truly working on culture–increasing trust, sense of belonging, decision-making, and communication among our staff. 

Shawna: I think it’s a strength that C-suite leaders are not on Just HQ. There is no one who is a de facto leader because of their title. Everyone leads. Can you talk a bit about how that works?

Nikki: We aren’t really prescriptive about who does what, but we do know what jobs need to be done and take turns doing them. For me, since I am a manager, I try to hang back and give other members the opportunity to lead in that way. I try to listen more than I talk. 

LaSheé: Our process is the definition of collaborating. There is conversation and figuring it out together. I get to do things with Just HQ that I normally wouldn’t do in my regular role. We allow people to do what they desire to do even if it doesn’t match their job role. 

Nikki: We spent a lot of time in the beginning talking about how we wanted to function together as a team and how we wanted our meetings to go. 

LaSheé: On this committee, we’re all learning as we go. We’re learning together.

Shawna: I’m curious, what has been the most challenging part of your work on Just HQ? 

LaSheé: I ask myself whether we (Just HQ) are doing enough to allow people to push themselves to the next level of equity work, not just attending meetings and taking in information. I want to be sure that we are taking equity work to the next level.


Nikki: I agree with what LaSheé said. We know that everyone has to own our culture–this team is here to champion that. So, while we want 100% of the staff to feel like they belong and feel included, we’re not at 100% yet. We have to keep figuring out what’s not working and why and keep trying to improve. We also need to keep lines of communication open with the rest of Camp Fire staff and learn from feedback about the education we are offering so our discussions can stay productive.  

LaSheé: I would add that we need to know our limits as a group. There are areas where we have to seek outside assistance to be able to provide the information staff needs in a particular area of equity. Even though there are multiple voices at the Just HQ table, there are still voices missing. 

Shawna: A standard part of your meeting agenda is reviewing Camp Fire norms and values. Can you talk a little about why you do that?

LaSheé: We feel like leading with those is an important way to hold ourselves and each other accountable to what we collectively believe and want to accomplish. It’s turned into an opportunity for staff to affirm each other for acting out those values. Team members give shout-outs to each other for things like exhibiting strong trust and collaboration. 

Nikki: We regularly check in on the values and make sure that they are still relevant to the culture we want and seek. That is part of the process, to make sure we’re staying on the same page.


Shawna: Are there other parts of Just HQ we haven’t talked about yet? 

LaSheé: We have optional book clubs and podcast discussion groups that give people a casual way to connect over certain topics and broaden thinking by considering perspectives from outside the organization. 

Nikki: We borrowed a framework from Christopher Littlefield that encourages teams to learn and grow, laugh and play, rest and rejuvenate, celebrate and appreciate, and connect and reflect together. We use that framework as a guide to make sure we’re staying balanced. 

Shawna: With a team that’s spread across the country, it’s so important to connect and see people as whole people. 

Shawna: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a group like Just HQ in their organization?

LaSheé: I would encourage them to be clear and honest about what the organization is already doing to advance equity because if that work has not already started, it will be a lot harder. And allow teams, not leaders, to set parameters around what the team might look like. Staff have a closer view to what’s happening on the ground and this process allows those voices to be heard when they might not otherwise be.

Nikki: We don’t want a top-down structure, but leadership does have to be committed to the work in order for it to be successful. We’re able to do what we do because our leadership prioritizes the work.  

Shawna: How has your experience at Camp Fire changed because of your involvement with Just HQ?

LaSheé: I have never been in a role where I am leading or presenting anything, ever. Being a part of Just HQ has allowed me to be in that role and combat my fear of public speaking and present to my peers on topics I’ve researched. It’s allowed me to be more comfortable speaking and leading. It has allowed those walls to come down. I still get nervous but I am not afraid anymore. Instead, I’m proud of the things I’ve learned, researched, and presented.

Photo of LaShee with text of her quote (text that came before this image)

Shawna: How has your experience at Camp Fire changed because of your involvement with Just HQ?

LaSheé: I have never been in a role where I am leading or presenting anything, ever. Being a part of Just HQ has allowed me to be in that role and combat my fear of public speaking and present to my peers on topics I’ve researched. It’s allowed me to be more comfortable speaking and leading. It has allowed those walls to come down. I still get nervous but I am not afraid anymore. Instead, I’m proud of the things I’ve learned, researched, and presented.

Nikki: I am generally happier, more productive, and more motivated in my job because of my involvement with Just HQ.  It’s energizing to be a part of something that is truly making a difference to how we function and work together.  My hope is that this effort outlasts my time at the organization–that there will always be a committee dedicated to this important pursuit. 

Photo of Nikki with text of her quote (text is in body below)

Shawna: How has your definition of leadership changed as part of your experience on Just HQ? 

Nikki: For me, I have gotten fulfillment in seeing others on the team grow in their leadership. It’s more satisfying for me to watch others lead and leverage what power I have to advocate for this group. I now measure my leadership in terms of how each individual on the team feels empowered to create change. 

LaSheé: I have a hard time with the concept of leadership. While I believe everyone can be a leader, I have struggled to define what it means for me personally. But I think that has changed. I have been able to say to myself, “you are leading the values of this organization” which is a quality of leadership. Even if that makes me feel uncomfortable, it is allowing me to step back and see leadership qualities in myself that I have not been able to see before working with the Just HQ committee. I would encourage other organizations to think about those employees that are not as vocal and to prioritize bringing voices to the table that are otherwise not heard.

Shawna: I’m struck by how many important leadership lessons I’m hearing from you two today, like sitting in the discomfort, sharing power, designing from the margins, progress over perfection…all of those things that are pivotal for individuals and organizations that are committed to equity. Just HQ hasn’t been around that long but it’s already changed the org culture and the ways that people are showing up. It’s really quite remarkable. With that, I’ll end with saying thank you for all that you do for the organization, for the team, and for each of us as individuals on our own journeys!

How to Have a Hard Conversation

Camp Fire Alabama

Conflict isn’t fun. Hard conversations can feel like a gut-punch, so most of us do everything we can to avoid them. But in the end, avoidance isn’t good for us, or our relationships.

The good news? There are healthy ways to handle conflict and hard conversations. Anyone can learn them. None of us will become experts overnight, but we can start now to learn how to have better conversations…and better conflict resolution. (Remember that growth mindset!)

Like we teach our Camp Fire youth, not every hard conversation will turn out perfectly with everyone will happy in the end. But if we strive to approach discussing problems in the best possible way, there is a high percentage the interaction will go well, and everyone will benefit!

Here’s what we can do to set ourselves up for hard conversation success:

1. First of all, be genuine when you approach someone. Let them know that things are about to get real! You might even ask up front, “Can we talk for a little bit? I have something really important I need to share with you.” When you sit down to talk, you could say, “This is hard for me to bring up, and I’m not sure exactly how it will come out but I want to ask for your patience and grace as I try to explain how I’ve been feeling…”

2. Go into the conversation with positive intentions. Resolve to listen, hear the other side, say what you need to say and reach a good ending.

3. As you continue the conversation, keep that end goal in mind. You want to resolve this conflict in a healthy way! That means it matters how you get there and how you express yourself.

Always try to be:

  • Kind, even if you’re upset
  • Thoughtful and intentional in your word choices… words are powerful!
  • Calm while using a matter-of-fact tone of voice
  • Respectful
  • Focused on how YOU feel, not accusatory. Don’t say “You do X, or you never do Y…” Say “I feel like X, and it seems like Y to me…”
  • Genuine and true to you!

Getting things off your chest in a healthy way is a truly beautiful thing, especially as honor yourself and how you feel. Go into hard conversations seeking the best for the person you’re talking with, and for yourself. Try to stay humble. No one has all the answers or knows it all, and all of us makes mistakes.

See our new infographic on 11 Tips for Better Conflict Resolution for even more ideas. And don’t worry, this takes practice and diligence! And with your practice comes wisdom, maturity, and more successful hard conversations.

You can do it! Good luck.

Camp Fire Transforms Youth Into Powerful Peacemakers

Camp Fire Orca in Tacoma, Washington.

Can you feel it? In the past several years, our culture seems to have hit new highs…or lows…when it comes to division, hostility, and opposition.

While we see constant conflict take its toll globally, we also know how interpersonal problems can do serious damage in our kids’ and teens’ lives. From bullying to academic trouble to depression, conflict on a micro-scale quickly causes big problems.

That’s why Camp Fire has been working on a comprehensive Conflict Resolution curriculum, launching nationwide in early 2018. It began in partnership with the University of Kansas School of Social Work in 2011. Working with 11 underserved schools in the Kansas City district, Camp Fire Heartland collaborated with educators, counselors, kids, and parents to develop super-useable conflict resolution tools. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

The curriculum helps kids build their peacemaking skills on individual, interpersonal and community levels. The program is tailored for three age groups (K-1st grade, 2nd-3rd grade and 4th-6th grade). The curriculum is split into a series of 45 to 60-minute modules (on topics like communication styles, negotiation and respect) that work in both camp and classroom settings.

Kayla Neal teaches Conflict Resolution to kids at summer camp in Kansas City, MO (July 2017).

Kayla Neal, Assistant Program Manager at Camp Fire Heartland, taught all three age categories Conflict Resolution at day camp this summer and is now teaching the program in the Kansas City school district.

“The program gives them a clear outlet to talk about their feelings,” Kayla says. “It helps them ask, ‘What is making me feel that emotion?’ It gives them a way to think differently and think collectively as a group.”

Kayla says most kids can tell you if they are mad, happy or sad. But learning to differentiate between more complex emotions—frustration, anxiety, disappointment—can help them manage and communicate their feelings better.

Youth at Camp Fire Orca in Washington State play tug-of-war.

“Being able to identify the emotion—it starts there,” Kayla says. “Then they can figure out what’s really going on.”

For example, Kayla says, if a youth can differentiate between being mad and being anxious, they can also identify the cause of that anxiety, and what they can do about it. “If I’m feeling a little anxiety about a test, then I can ask myself what I can do to help with that anxiety: study, get some rest.”

The program helps kids manage their feelings and also communicate their emotions to others more effectively. That emotional intelligence can help mitigate childhood conflicts, especially intense ones like bullying.

As part of Camp Fire’s Thrive{ology} approach, the conflict resolution curriculum has already had an impact. When we measure kids’ belief in their ability to talk to someone they were “mad at” before taking part in Camp Fire’s programming, they rate their confidence much lower than other life skills. But early studies show that kids are self-reporting big leaps in their conflict-resolution confidence after a spring and summer of Camp Fire fun.

According to Camp Fire National Headquarter’s Program Consultant Nikki Roe Cropp, out of all the ‘Thriving Indicators’ we measure in youth, the skills they learn in Conflict Resolution has shown the greatest growth. This research makes it all the more exciting to be able to launch our tested Conflict Resolution curricula to the other 55 Camp Fire councils in the New Year.

Conflict resolution skills are endangered and transformative. Thanks for your support as we equip more youth to be proactive and learn to handle conflict in a healthy way! It’s a beautiful thing, and everyone wins.

Photo from Camp Fire Seattle, taken by Jenny Gawf

Find your local council and see if they will have this program available, or ask what other awesome programs they have going on!

$2.5 Million Investment from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation to Build Camp Fire’s Capacity


S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation

September 24, 2017

$2.5 Million Investment from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation to Build Camp Fire’s Capacity, Increase Impact, Serve More Youth

Kansas City, Mo. — The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation invested again in Camp Fire, a national youth development organization, with a generous grant of $2.5 million to help build organizational capacity and reach more kids and teens with its leading, research-based programs.

The $2.5 million will be distributed over a two-and-a-half-year period and will focus on leadership development for the staff and board; the continued expansion of Camp Fire’s online learning system to mobilize highly trained staff and volunteers; increase the local affiliate capacity across the country to deliver more high-quality programs; strengthen Camp Fire’s fundraising arm; and helping raise brand awareness nationally.

Previous investments in Camp Fire from The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, totaling nearly $800,000 over the past two years, supported specific capacity building initiatives for both Camp Fire National Headquarters and the affiliate system. This new investment brings the Foundation’s total commitment to Camp Fire to $3.3 million.

“Camp Fire is honored to announce this investment and partnership with prominent foundations like the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. The Foundation’s leadership continues to heavily invest in a big vision for how we can better teach, equip, and support America’s youth for maximum impact,” said Cathy Tisdale, President and CEO of Camp Fire National Headquarters. “This new investment will strengthen Camp Fire’s organizational capacity; support our innovation and growth; and take us to the next level in our ability to deliver Our Promise as we work with our 54 councils nationwide to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of youth, their families, and their communities across the country.”

About Camp Fire

Camp Fire has been an innovative leader in youth development since 1910. Its proven programs give kids the life skills they need now so they can reach their full potential. Last year, Camp Fire’s 53 councils served more than 184,000 youth and families across 1,341 program sites, in 25 states and in D.C. All Camp Fire programs are based on cutting-edge research and founded on the pillars of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), delivered through Out-of-School-Time (OST) programs, environmental education and camp, and teen service and leadership development. Because youth shape the world, Camp Fire’s focus is on giving youth and teens the opportunity to find their spark, lift their voice, and discover who they are.

About the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation

For more information, please contact:

Erin Risner, Director of Marketing & Communications, Camp Fire National Headquarters

816.285.2001, erin.risner@campfire.org

An Open Letter to America’s Youth from Camp Fire

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

I am writing you today because we desperately need your help. Adults need you to step up and be our role models. We need you to show the country how to treat people with kindness and respect.

I know what you’re thinking, “I’m just a kid. What can I do? Adults won’t listen to me.”

That’s why Camp Fire is reaching out to you. You ARE a role model, and this is where it matters.

Camp Fire works with young people in small towns and big cities across the country. Kids as young as five-years-old all the way up through high school. When we work with you we see amazing things happen! We admire how you respect the right of other people to be different from you, how you welcome them. You “get it”, meaning you know you don’t yell at people or make them feel stupid just because they don’t agree with you. You show compassion for others…READ THE FULL LETTER.

15 Questions to Spark a Sparks Conversation

Thirty-eight percent of kids don’t know what their spark is. They haven’t yet discovered what gets them excited, pushes them to learn and gives them purpose.

We know that sparks are the first step to thriving—to creating a healthy, purposeful life. What can help kids find their spark?

We can. But research shows that adults don’t always know it’s important to be spark-proactive. Only 55 percent of kids say they get support for their sparks from adults.

Adults are critical in kids’ sparks journeys. Not because we can assign passions to sparkless kids. But because we can get kids thinking and talking about sparks. We can earn their trust, start conversations and name the sparks we see come alive.

Adam Kisler, Camp Fire Heartland’s program manager, says it’s important to have sparks conversations in the context of a solid relationship.

 Adam Kisler leading kids in an activity at Camp Maple Woods summer day camp on July 13, 2017.
Adam Kisler leading kids in an activity at Camp Maple Woods summer day camp on July 13, 2017.

“We want kids to know we’re not just one more person in their life who is going to tell them what to do.” Kisler says. “We want them to know people care about them and we’re not going anywhere.”

Building trust takes time, and good conversations take attention. Kisler says adults need to be careful not to talk too much. We can easily drown out a kid’s own passion by talking too much about our own! Remember to get down on their level—literally sit, bend or crouch down—and make good eye contact.

Once you’ve built up a solid foundation of trust, you’ve earned the right to start talking about sparks.

“Sparks questions are only as good as the atmosphere and trust we build around these kids,” Kisler says.

But sometimes we just don’t know what to say to spark the spark, you know?

Kisler likes to get kids started with questions that are really easy for kids to answer. Over time, Kisler and his Camp Fire staff build on those initial conversations by exposing kids to all kinds of possible sparks…and see what clicks.

  • What are your hobbies?
  • What do you like to watch on TV?
  • What’s been the most exciting part of your summer so far?
  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What do you enjoy about that [hobby, show, thing you did]?
  • Why do you think you enjoyed it?

If you have a close relationship with a kid who digs deep conversations, try Thrive Foundation for Youth’s suggestions. These questions start simple and get more complex:

Once sparks have become a common conversation topic, you can ask kids how you can help with their spark development. Try these questions from Dr. Peter L. Benson’s influential TED talk on sparks.

  • What gives you joy when you do it?
  • What interests or subjects are you really passionate about?
  • What difference does what you do make to the world around you?
  • Why is who you are and what you do important to you and the world beyond you?

Don’t forget: We’re in these sparks conversations together! Kids need more than just family members invested in their sparks. In Dr. Benson’s TEDx talk, he reminds us that kids with at least three grown-up Spark Champions just do better than those without adult support.

  • What is your spark?
  • Who knows it?
  • How can I help?
  • Where do you express it?
  • What gets in the way?

That’s where Camp Fire comes in. We train our staff and volunteers to support kids’ passions. And our programs are designed connect kids and teens to their next Spark Champion. Find your Camp Fire, find your spark!