Hundreds of donors and volunteers who support camping at YMCA of the North are voicing angst and anger over a COVID-19-related financial decision to fire top managers at half of the Y’s eight camps.
Glen Gunderson, chief executive president of the nonprofit association, has successfully allayed some fears that the YMCA could be losing interest in camping. But his strong reassurances haven’t ended the controversy. At least one prominent camp is publicly revolting and trying to undo the change.
“I’m concerned about the future of YMCA camping and in particular the future of YMCA wilderness camping,’’ said Katy Hargis, a former chairwoman of the Camp Menogyn Community Board.
Taylor Fay, current chairman of Menogyn’s all-volunteer community board, said he believes YMCA brass in Minneapolis is committed to camping as a core, long-term mission.
But supporters of Menogyn, in particular, want the Y to reverse the decision that has left the 98-year-old camp sharing an executive director with Camp Widjiwagan on Burntside Lake in Ely. Menogyn and “Widji” serve as the backbone of wilderness camping and adventure trips at YMCA of the North, formerly known as YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. The four camp executive directors who lost their jobs were fired, not furloughed.
“I’m certainly frustrated with this decision and the situation we’re in,’’ Fay said Friday. “But I’m hopeful in the direction we are going now.’’
He said Gunderson has been engaged in good-faith talks with Menogyn’s supporters in looking for a solution. But as Fay noted, the talks can’t take place in a vacuum because the staff cuts have affected all eight YMCA of the North camps in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
At Hennepin County’s Camp Ihduhapi on Lake Independence, for example, YMCA brass yanked the executive director and assigned her duties to the executive director, who remains in charge of Camp Warren on Half Moon Lake near Eveleth, 200 miles away. The restructuring happened in late July.
“I think other camps are concerned,” Fay said. “Everyone is worried.’’
Camp Menogyn, which hosts upward of 600 teen campers in a normal year, is located 45 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. There are no roads to the camp itself; you have to cross West Bearskin Lake to get there.
Fay said Menogyn’s inherent safety and risk management issues demand a full-time executive director. He said the executive director also maintains key relationships with donors, volunteers and other supporters.
Said Hargis: “When you lose your executive director, you lose the identity of your camps.’’
Soon after Camp Menogyn Executive Director Meghan Cosgrove was fired late last month as part of the Y’s sweeping cost-cutting moves, the community board held an emergency meeting and launched a website to announce the cuts and inform supporters of “next steps.’’
Fay informed generations of the camp’s devoted followers that the Y acted without consulting Menogyn’s local leaders.
The message set off a flurry of comments on the Camp Menogyn Alumni Facebook group site.
“Get involved … Don’t let them take away the camps!!!!’’ one supporter wrote.
“I’m afraid this may be the beginning of the end of Menogyn,’’ another supporter wrote.
Another alumni group member called the staff reduction a “corporate structure tactic.’’ He wrote: “In the big picture of cutting Y employees.[sic] The camp director should not be one of them.’’
Other supporters worry that YMCA’s camps could be sold for cash to address the association’s financial crisis. YMCA spokeswoman Joan Schimml said the nonprofit’s revenue in the first seven months of 2020 plunged 30%.
The crash coincided with the shutdown of facilities and programming forced by the coronavirus. Some members canceled or suspended memberships. The Y also had to cancel revenue-making events and programs, contributing to staff furloughs and other cuts.
Gunderson has hosted at least two online “listening circles’’ attended by hundreds of people in the Y’s camping community. In those meetings he’s been unequivocal about the association’s long-term commitment to the camps and the Y’s wilderness adventures.
“I know there’s concern out there,’’ he said in an interview. “We have absolutely zero interest in shrinking our wilderness camping program.’’
The Y canceled all camping activities this summer at Menogyn and Widjiwagan. In addition, Menogyn withdrew its winter dog-sled programming. The two camps not only lead canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, they also train campers for backpacking, climbing and paddling adventures around the world.
Gunderson and Niki Geisler, vice president of camping at the Y, said the wilderness camps offer the utmost in transformational experiences for YMCA youth.
Gunderson said that the staffing cuts were “100 percent pandemic-driven’’ and that he was right to make the cuts without first consulting with the individual community boards at each camp. The employees who were dismissed deserved to be the first to know of their fate, he said.
Tony Lockhart of Two Harbors attended Camp Menogyn as a child and sent his own children there. He’s been active as a supporter for decades and now sits on the Menogyn Community Board.
He said the outpouring of concern by alumni is a reflection of how much people love the camps and want to protect them.
“The idea that it’s threatened creates urgency,’’ Lockhart said.
He said it’s clear to him that YMCA’s top executives are committed to camping “for the next 100 years.’’ He added: “The challenge for the Y and the challenge for those of us who believe in these programs is to find a way through these uncertain times.’’