Girl Scouts, allies rally to save Chesco camp

Posted: July 12, 2011

Girl Scouts, parents, and former scouts in southern Chester County and around the region are hitting the streets and the Internet, and it's not to sell cookies.

They're signing petitions, distributing fliers, designing buttons, and posting comments on Facebook and websites - all to reverse a controversial Girl Scout decision to close Camp Tweedale in Oxford, Chester County, next summer.

Camp Tohikanee in upper Bucks County and Hidden Falls in the Poconos also are scheduled to close as early as next June. Those camps have their supporters, but nothing compared with the response defending Tweedale.

"Where are Chester County girls going to go now?" asks Stephanie Bernasconi, 20, of West Chester, who attended Tweedale for eight years and worked as a counselor last summer. "Other camps are two to three hours away."

The Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, which covers nine counties, based its decision on a two-year study of its six largest camps. The council determined that three camps can handle its 41,195 scouts, and it chose the three it considers best suited to expand programs and facilities.

The council was looking to the future and each camp's potential for growth, says Kim Fraites-Dow, senior director of development.

But that will leave the Philadelphia area, which accounts for 73 percent of the membership, with only one overnight, year-round camp - Camp Laughing Waters in Gilbertsville, Montgomery County. The other two camps are Wood Haven in Schuylkill County and Mosey Wood in Carbon County.

Chester County ranked second in membership last year with 6,519 Girl Scouts ages 5 to 17, followed by Bucks with 6,410. The closings would leave each county without a camp in its backyard.

"There's so much we can do there: archery, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, science programs - even a Harry Potter program," Bernasconi says of the 120-acre camp overlooking Octoraro Reservoir. "There are day camps, which are good for 6- and 7-year-olds, and overnight camping for older girls."

Bernasconi posted a petition to save the camp on change.org after the council's decision became public, aiming for 1,000 signatures. That goal was reached in 18 days, and the signatures keep coming.

Proximity is key, parents and volunteers say, because the camps are used for more than overnight stays. Participation in day and weekend programs would be difficult to impossible when a long drive is required, they say. And they dispute last year's site assessment assertion that "all camps are about an hour travel distance from membership."

Each of the council's six camps operated in the red last year, with the largest losses posted by those scheduled to remain open. Laughing Waters led the list with a loss of $189,429; Tohikanee was fourth with $106,336, followed by Tweedale with $103,031.

The study projects most of the population gains through 2020 to be outside the Philadelphia area - except for an 18.1 percent increase in Chester County.

"This was a difficult decision for everybody, especially since the legacy councils had divested camps before the merger," Fraites-Dow says, "so these are good camps."

Four years ago, the Freedom Valley, Great Valley, and Southeastern Pennsylvania councils merged into the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, with total membership of 50,000. And now Tweedale and Tohikanee, the last of the Freedom Valley camps, face closing, as popular camps such as Sunset Hill in Chadds Ford did before the merger.

The two-year assessment process included three surveys and three town-hall style meetings.

"I feel like I was scammed," says Karen D'Agusto, a manager for the Girl Scouts' Brandywine Valley Service Unit, about the survey she filled out.

"They asked, 'Would you like air-conditioned cabins? Would you like heated cabins? Would you like horseback riding?' Sure I would," she says. "Then, we find out - they're closing our camps.

"If I had known they were going to eliminate primitive camping or eliminate Tweedale and all that it offers, I would never have answered that way."

D'Agusto also attended one of the Town Hall meetings.

"I thought Tweedale met all the requirements - I thought it was safe," she says. "There's nothing like its waterfront. Laughing Waters doesn't have a lake."

Once the council posted the 53-page Property Committee report on its blog on June 17, D'Agusto and fellow Tweedale supporters sprang into action. They conducted meetings and set up a website (www.friendsoftweedale.org) and Facebook pages ("Save Camp Tweedale and Tohi" and "Save Camp Tweedale!"), attracting hundreds of comments - including many on the council's blog.

They also are lining up lawyers, accountants, and other experts to review council and camp finances and programs. They want know where the proceeds of cookie and camp sales have gone.

The council, meanwhile, is working on the next step - planning how to close the camps and what to do with the properties. More town halls, which started last week, "will come up with good ways to close the camps," spokeswoman Fraites-Dow says.

Chester County "has one of the strongest memberships - the largest number of Gold Awards, and a lot of volunteers," Fraites-Dow adds. "It's important to see what we can do there."


Contact staff writer Bill Reed at 215-801-2964 or wreed@philly.com.

 

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