I Fundraise for Camp Fire First Texas, But My Favorite Part About My Job Might Surprise You, a Camp Fire First Texas blog by Julia Summers

Vice President Outdoor & Facilities

I grew up in a strict but supportive home where right and wrong seemed easy to differentiate. When I thought of people who went to jail for a crime, I quickly assigned blame to the individual and made assumptions that they were lazy, greedy, or not very smart. 

But a year ago, I had the opportunity to work with a group of young men who had been in jail. Everything I thought I knew about them was wrong.

When this group of young men were purposefully introduced to the therapeutic value of the outdoors, it provided an experience that changed us all. 

The group arrived at Camp Fire Camp El Tesoro on a Friday. The afternoon was less than remarkable. It consisted of camp rules and cabin move-ins. The young men were quiet, tough, and did not seem overly excited about being at camp, even though they did let it slip that they were glad to be away from the unit where they had been doing rehabilitation, post-incarceration. 

We went through some name games and a couple of team-building initiatives which they solved quickly and not in the orthodox way I have seen hundreds of groups before them approach the same situation. They were more creative with a little less concern for the rules. It was fun to watch as they began to let their guard down and laugh a little. Later, during a hike back to their cabin, the sound of a charging armadillo made these tough young men shriek and run for their lives. 

The next day started with an early breakfast. They ate their fill and then some, many of them commenting on how much better camp food was than jail food. 

Our first activity was archery. Archery is a great sport for newcomers because you can have some success relatively quickly. Even though none of them had ever shot a bow before we had lots of bullseyes and took photos for our wall of fame! 

Next, we headed over to the challenge course. They started with the low element – commitment bridge – where two climbers walk on two wires that diverge. If each climber keeps their own balance, they cannot make it far. This element requires leaning into your partner and trusting them to keep you on the wire. It was apparent they preferred to look out for themselves. Later, when we moved to higher elements, it was also apparent that being brave on the streets does not translate to climbing heights.

Yet throughout, I was struck by their support for each other in spotting and their willingness to push themselves on elements. 

After lunch, we went down to the Brazos river to do some fishing. I was surprised to find out that none of them had ever been fishing. The fish were not biting but we had an enjoyable time just sitting in the sun and enjoying a beautiful day. Eventually, fishing broke down into skipping rocks with which we had a little more success. It was a hot day, so we headed for the pool next. With some music in the background, the young men enjoyed a competitive game of 500 with an old football. From there we hiked back to the dining hall for a “discussion”. We are careful not to call it a therapy group as that gets a negative reaction out of these young men who have been to a few too many groups. 

During the “discussion”, one young man told the story of how his dad and uncle drove him to the store when he was ten years old to show him which kind of beer to steal for them while they waited in the truck. That story really stuck with me. I always did what my father told me to do, too. 

After dinner, they made short work of the staff willing to try and keep up on the basketball court, then we sat around some tables and played spades waiting for the sun to go down. Later, around the campfire, we had another “discussion”, this time asking what they would take away from their experience at camp. They said the kinds of things you hoped they would say.

Things like they did not really know this kind of fun existed and that they wanted to bring their families to camp someday.

The stars were bright overhead, the kind you do not see in the city, as they ate their first-ever s’mores. The conversation turned to ghost stories, and everyone tried it – some were good. 

As my head hit the pillow that night it was clear to me that we had given this group of young men one of the best days of their lives. The recidivism rate for those who have walked similar paths is high, but I believe a day like we had together can light a spark to lead them on a new path and a new way of approaching the world. 

I know that the time I spent with them, seeing camp experiences through their eyes, certainly altered mine!

Have a group that could benefit from a camp experience? Learn about group rentals at El Tesoro.