The Last Word - July 2016
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The Last Word with…
…Tisha Bolger of the American Camp Association

By Deborah L. Vence


When Tisha Bolger was in fourth grade, she attended a summer resident camp for three weeks and never looked back.

"Camp, for me, was a transformative experience. I learned how to canoe and sail. I made new friends, loved being outdoors and adored my college-aged counselors," said Bolger, who is chair of the American Camp Association. "It was an experience that gave me self-confidence, made me depend on myself and take risks. I felt independent and felt so supported by everyone around me."

As Bolger's camp experience grew, so did her love for the outdoors and the wilderness.

"I recognized the benefits of a nature experience," she said.

And, as she got older, she knew that camp and the outdoors would be the right fit for her.

"During my resident camp experience, my camp director, who ended up being a lifelong mentor, introduced me to camp professionals who also influenced me," she said. "When I decided to pursue a graduate degree, it was a safe bet that getting a master's [degree] in recreation would be what I'd pursue."

Bolger attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota where she earned a master's in Parks and Recreation. While attending school there, she also became more acquainted with the American Camp Association.

"Working at camp, I had always been aware of its role in accreditation and education. But, in graduate school I was introduced to original research, pertinent articles and staff development opportunities," she said.

Bolger's camp experience would eventually lead to a lifelong commitment in parks and recreation.

Today, she is chair of the American Camp Association (ACA), a position she's held since 2012. The ACA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to youth development and quality camp programs. Moreover, the organization is a community of camp professionals who, for more than 100 years, have joined together to share knowledge and experience, and to ensure the quality of camp programs.

In addition, Bolger is CEO of Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys, a role she took on in October 2015. Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys serves 32,000 girls in southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Previously, she was COO of the organization. Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys is one of 112 Girl Scout councils that make up the national Girl Scout Movement. The organization's work is supported by more than 11,000 volunteers.

In her current role as board chair of the ACA, Bolger works closely and collaboratively with the CEO to ensure an active, focused and supportive board.

"I work with the CEO to facilitate board leadership and good governance," she said. "Together, we mold culture, work and impact. My work is really about leading the board and setting the tone for members. As chair I also oversee governance and policy setting, with a focus on mission, direction, priorities and evaluation."

Bolger's work experience also includes senior executive leadership positions with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., and Alpha House Youth Services in Wisconsin.

In her free time Bolger said she enjoys "anything near the water or on the water."

"Living in Minnesota—land of 10,000 lakes—is the place for me," she added. "I also have a Girl Scout troop and can't wait to bring them to camp this summer."

What Bolger sees as being very important right now is that youth have never been faced with so many opportunities and challenges at the same time.

"The influences, both positive and negative, are everywhere around them—on TV, social media, school, family," she said.

"And, in many states and communities we face alarming disparities for kids of color, gaps in graduation rates and health outcomes. For the kids impacted by these disparities, our camps and outdoor programs for youth can literally change lives," she said. "Our work is more important than ever, and we have to work especially hard to be sure policy makers, parents and educators know the value of a quality camp experience."

When asked what advice she would give to those just beginning their careers in the recreation business, Bolger said, "Follow your passion. Move outside your comfort zone by trying new things and meeting new people and join your professional association and volunteer. Get involved."