Pat Connors remembers fondly the big green gate, big enough for half a dozen or more to sit on.
As was tradition at Camp Greenwood in the 1950s, counselors at the Girl Scout camp would wave from their perch at the departing buses as their former charges -- often weeping as long-forgotten homesickness had quickly eased into enduring friendships -- were carried home after a memory-filled respite in the woods.
Connors, 81, is a proud lifetime member of the Girl Scouts, first joining in 1942. "I like to say I'm an ancient Girl Scout," she said. A retired teacher who taught at three schools in St. Louis Park, she also spent much of her life working summers as a counselor at Camp Greenwood and other camps across the nation.
But Greenwood, near Buffalo, Minn., is close to her heart. So word that it will close at the end of September -- along with Camp Rolling Ridges near Hudson, Wis., and Camp Piper Hill near Medford, Minn. -- struck a wistful note.
But while the camp she loved will no longer be used by Girls Scouts, she holds fast to the lessons, memories and friendships she made there. "There are a lot places, spots, that are like memories," she said. "There are lots of friendships that have built up. I'm in touch with -- in fact, I just saw them last week -- two of my tentmates from camp."
The reward of mentoring young women drew Connors back to camp year after year. For many, it was a transformative experience. "The campers have to make their decisions, they're responsible for themselves. They had jobs they had to do because people are counting on them," Connors said, plus "they can just sop up the beauty of the world."
The difficult decision to close the three camps doesn't mean those opportunities for Girl Scouts will be lost, said Tisha Bolger, chief operating officer for the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys. There are still four camps within a 50-mile radius of the Twin Cities.
A task force last summer began a comprehensive review of 17 sites owned by the agency. "What we realized is that we have much more capacity than we have girls."
Over the past five years, it was found that the number of girls going to camp has been steadily declining, Bolger said. In 2009, the occupancy rate at camps was 37 percent. Even with three camps closing, that number will remain at about 50 percent.
Despite that, Bolger added, her agency is committed to camping, and the money saved will actually make it available to more girls. Camping is heavily subsidized: About 19 percent of her agency's budget goes to camping costs, but it generates only 5 percent of the revenues. This year, costs will exceed revenues by $1.3 million, she said. The property sales will cover about half of that loss.
And cookie sales, now in full-throttle, are integral to helping pay for camp. Besides being designed to teach girls financial literacy, Bolger said, sales cover 65 percent of the agency's budget.
The recommendation to close the three camps comes with the recognition of the memories and emotion to which they are attached, Bolger said. Camp Greenwood, for example, has been around since 1925, and was the first one in the Minneapolis area.
"When it's been your camp, it's hard for you to think about doing that program at another camp," Bolger said. At the same time, though, her agency needs to respond to fiscal realities. "In the long run, we'll have an organization that's much more sustainable."
That means more treasured memories, like those of Connors that inevitably come with a smile. They include this, which can be filed under "nice try:"
As the buses were loading at Greenwood for a final day, one camper took an urgent trip to the latrine, which lasted just long enough for the buses to leave.
"She came out of the latrine and said, 'Now I get to stay two more weeks!'" Connors said. "And the camp director lassoed her and put her in the car and they went after the bus."
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199