Usage nearly triples, ground broken for tree house at Camp Latonka

Monday, October 3, 2016

SIKESTON -- Three years after Girl Scouts of Missouri Heartland placed Camp Latonka under provision, the number of people who use the Wappapello camp has tripled each year, and an addition is planned.

In 2013, five camps in the Girl Scouts of the Missouri Heartland council were scheduled to close, but three were rescued by local volunteers during the provisional period.

Among those is Camp Latonka in Wappapello.

Missouri camps Mintahama and Sacajawea West were also rescued. Like other Girl Scouts across the country, they're struggling to salvage their local properties while introducing technology and new types of outdoor activities.

Groups like the Friends of Camp Latonka have fought to keep the camps open by getting support from the community.

Gabbie Hodgkiss, who is the program chair for Friends of Camp Latonka and Girl Scouts service unit leader for Sikeston, recalled the group submitting a proposal to the Missouri Heartland council board in November 2013.

"They told us our proposal would have to include that we would be responsible for half of the operating expenses and all of deferred maintenance and increase usage of the camp," Hodgkiss said.

Girl Scouts of America, which marked its 65th anniversary this year, has lost more than a million members in the past decade, and has reduced its councils from 312 to 112. The organization said the decline in members is due to a lack of adult volunteers and the increasing demand from other organizations and activities.

The Missouri Heartland council ended leases on two properties and sold two other camps. The council allowed three camps to stay open on a provisional basis, with orders to raise money, increase participation and repair the properties.

In 2013, 346 people used the Latonka property. In three years since the property has been in a probationary period, usage has nearly tripled. Over 1,000 people each year in 2014, 2015 and 2016 used the property, Hodgkiss said.

Previously at Latonka, there were platform tents and canvas tents were placed over them.

"Over the years, the wear-and-tear has worn on them," Hodgkiss said. "We tore those out and are building a tree house that will sleep 16. It's two cabins with a set of stairs in the middle. There will be a cabin on each side."

Johnson Construction Co. of Sikeston is handling the construction.

"We've been working on this (plan) for almost a year now and got the go ahead from the board," Hodgkiss said.

A groundbreaking ceremony for building the tree house was held Sept. 24,

"At the same time we were having a campout and groundbreaking, the board of directors met again, and our group had to present what we've done the last three years and what was successful," Hodgkiss said.

Events to increase camp use included golf tournaments, runs, campouts and other activities, Hodgkiss said.

"Originally the council board told us at the end of the three years, they would let us know their decision of whether or not the camp would stay open. They have now decided we would be responsible for operating expenses for one more year, and then the property committee will revisit all of the properties in a year," Hodgkiss said.

She noted the property committee has several more members and new members since the properties were placed under provision three years ago.

One of the questions raised by the committee was if the camp had enough usage to warrant staying open. To Hodgkiss and other camp supporters, clearly, the answer is yes.

"It's rustic. We have cabins and it's a location that is a safe place for kids to go and be kids and enjoy themselves," Hodgkiss said of Latonka. "I think it's important to keep a safe place where kids are able to be kids. Society puts a lot of pressure on kids on how to act."

In addition to the area Girl Scout troops, youth groups, church groups, businesses and others utilize Latonka. The camp, which is located on the lake, offers attendees the chance to fish, canoe and paddle boat. There is also a ropes course, zip-lining, archery and more, Hodgkiss said, adding these activities can assist with team-building skills.

More members of the public are utilizing the camp.

"Word is spreading," Hodgkiss said. "People have rented the camp for a family reunion, birthday parties, and outside groups can use the full kitchen. There's a commercial kitchen and dining lodge.

"There are places at the camp that can be used year-round and they have air conditioning and heat," Hodgkiss said.

Community support is great, Hodgkiss said. Friends of Camp Latonka raised $200,000 in monetary and in-kind donations. The support has come from alumni, parents and businesses, she said.

From the alumni sense, they supported because they feel like camp changed them in some way and carried it with them for the rest of their lives.

"They learned a skill and felt empowered. In some way their lives were forever changed because of that experience they had at camp," Hodgkiss said.

For parents of newer Girl Scouts, they support the camp because they like having a safe place for their kids to go and to be able to enjoy the outdoors is important to parents, Hodgkiss said.

"Not everyone is a camper, but there is something everyone can do outside -- fishing, archery, sports, canoeing. For them it's important to have place to go and enjoy things

"Electronics and technology are great, but everybody is so plugged in and parents realize: 'My kids need to get outside and enjoy outdoors,' and Camp Latonka is a space that's safe and close," Hodgkiss said.

For businesses or corporations who've contributed to saving Latonka, they've said they realize children of today need a place to go and enjoy themselves and be outside and it's important to keep a space for them to do that, Hodgkiss said.

Lynda Warren of Sikeston, who is the co-leader of Daisy Troop 71275, along with seven first grade girls from her troop, including her daughter Caroline, along with five adults spent last weekend at Latonka attending the groundbreaking ceremony.

It's a place to experience priceless time with the girls, Warren said.

"We made memories and learned vital things, such as archery and fishing," Warren said. "The night before we got started with our daily activities, we had a bonfire, roasted hot dogs, sang camp songs and the girls did skits."

They also participated in arts and crafts and went on a hayride.

"Getting out in nature and seeing these children absorbed something instead of seeing it on an iPad, they can see it in person instead," Warrant said.

For example, the girls saw an insect walking stick, which they recognized from the animated film, "A Bug's Life."

"They were ecstatic," Warren said.

Adults had an equally fun time, she said.

"I know all the adults were loving it and some adults tried activities like archery and fishing for the first time," Warren said.

Warren said she was not a Girl Scout growing up and was unaware of all Latonka had to offer until she became a troop leader.

"It's amazing to have," Warren said of Latonka. "We can't lose it. We have to keep it for our young ladies and families in the area."

Donations to support Latonka may be mailed to: Friends of Camp Latonka; 223 N. Main St., Suite 306; Sikeston, MO 63801.

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