To Increase Its Reach, Foundation Goes Year-Round

By Hugh Haller

On most evenings during the summer of 1977, a group of staff guys would be in John Holden’s cabin overlooking the tennis courts, playing pinochle and poring over trip logs while John worked at his desk in the corner. I can still hear the sound of his famous two finger typing, the clinking of ice cubes in his glass.

On one such night, John sat down to type up a report from a recent meeting of the long-range planning committee—a blueprint for the next 20 years.

A year ago, John Grate gave me a copy of that report. Much of the plan was classic Holden: upgrades to the septic mound, fortification of the Dining Hall buttresses, expansion of the Junior Camp. But two items caught my eye. The first urged the board to establish a Canadian trips base. The second called for the creation of a girls camp.

The latter became John’s enduring dream, which he whispered to George Simmons at the end of his life. “George,” he said, “don’t forget about the girls.”

Today, the Camping & Education Foundation operates both a thriving girls camp, Ogichi Daa Kwe, and a remote Canadian outpost, Owakonze—not to mention Camp Kooch-i-ching, now in its 95th year of continuous operation, and the Urban Wilderness Program, a pioneering educational program that serves hundreds of Cincinnati schoolchildren each year.

Since its founding in 1962, the Foundation has never strayed from John’s original vision, as stated in the articles of incorporation: “to educate, instruct and train children and adults by means of camping experiences and other programs for the purpose of developing and improving their individual capabilities and skills, their appreciation for higher values and their ability to live harmoniously and responsibly in American society.”

Kooch-i-ching and Ogichi have more than delivered on John’s ambitious vision. For two idyllic months each year, camp is a place where kids can stretch their social, emotional and physical muscles outside the safety of their immediate families.

Camp is a community. There are rules, routines and traditions. Everyone participates; nobody is left out. There is no racial or socioeconomic hierarchy. There is no bench.

Camp is an outdoor science lab where kids can catch frogs, get lost among the trees, and feel the wind and rain on their faces. At camp, kids experience the natural environment, and come to care about it.

Camp teaches kids to ask questions, to ask for help, to succeed, and to fail. Examples of positive leadership are everywhere, and opportunities to practice leadership are many. Camp prepares kids for the real world. It has a lasting impact.

But camp is also finite, temporary by design, and limited in the number of kids it can serve. Faced with this reality, we must confront the question: Should the Foundation do more? To find the answer, we must first acknowledge that “American society,” as referenced by Holden, has changed.

“Today,” writes Barbara Beck in a special report on childhood for the Economist, “children will spend most of their time indoors, often with adults rather than siblings or friends, be supervised more closely, be driven everywhere rather than walk or cycle, take part in many more organized activities, engage with a screen of some kind.”

At the American Camp Association’s national conference in February, a presenter shared a startling statistic: The average child today is diagnosed as having as much anxiety as a psychiatric patient in the 1950s. This anxiety is attributed, in part, to de-socialization and cyberbullying stemming from social media.

Knowing John in my youth, I believe his vision for the Foundation was not limited to the impact of a single summer camp, or even two. I believe—and the board believes—that the Foundation can and should do more. We can raise our profile, broaden our reach, and impact more kids through year-round programming, particularly those living in urban areas.

In Cincinnati, we are doing just that. Our Urban Wilderness Program, now in its ninth year, has grown dramatically in size and scope. Our boatbuilding program is especially popular among educators, being a perfect blend of experiential and STEM-based learning.

We are also knee-deep in the planning process for a permanent Urban Wilderness Center in Burnet Woods, a forested park in the heart of Cincinnati. The center will be constructed within the framework of the Living Building Challenge, the most rigorous green certification program in the world, and we hope to have it up and running by the spring of 2021.

At the University of Cincinnati, our Experiential Leadership in the Outdoors Certificate is headed into its second full year, with a stated goal of becoming a four-year degree program. The certificate includes a Foundation-sponsored problem-solving course, Inquiry to Innovation, and a Wilderness Immersion Course at Owakonze, where we are continuing to upgrade the facilities and brainstorm new uses for the property.

While sitting at my own desk, pecking away at my laptop, I often ask myself: “If John were alive today, what would he be envisioning now?”

Tom Martella, a close adviser, routinely encourages me to think long term: “Where do we want to be—not in 10 to 15 years, but in 50 to 100?” he asks.

To stay relevant, we must think this way. We must strive to be best-in-class, to be year-round, and to reach as many young people as possible. It is a goal that requires tremendous stamina. But I am confident that we are up to the task.

This article was originally published in the 2018 Annual Report.