In 1963, Joan Hurst moved to Alaska to serve as the first employee of the Alaska Camp Fire council. Under her leadership as the Executive Director, the Council grew from a volunteer driven club-based program for girls into a comprehensive co-ed youth development organization serving thousands of youth across Alaska.
Joan Hurst was born March 15, 1927 and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. She received both her Bachelors and Masters degrees from the University of Wisconsin. After four years as an elementary school teacher, Joan began her career with Camp Fire as the camping and training director in Long Beach, California.
Creating Safe Places for Kids Before and After School
One of Joan’s greatest accomplishments was addressing how to support working families with latch-key kids. Her vision has had a profound impact on thousands of youth and many generations of families. Today, as a result of Joan’s work, Camp Fire Alaska has licensed Before and After School Programs in 28 elementary schools within the Anchorage School District and operates four Community Center Programs in economically challenged neighborhoods in Anchorage. Combined, these programs currently provide 1,400 youth with a safe place to be before and after school each day and represent high-quality, affordable childcare options for working families.
Connecting Youth to Nature
In the early 1960s, under Joan’s leadership the Alaska Council acquired a land use agreement from the Department of Natural Resources for the rights to use their property along Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing to deliver a residential camp experience. She brought together a passionate group of volunteers to build the camp. The camp was given the name Camp Kushtaka (now Camp K), and it quickly became that special place all young Alaskan girls wanted to attend each and every summer. Shortly before her retirement, Joan presided over the signing of a long-term lease with the State of Alaska for the property. Camp K is Alaska’s longest-running, co-ed residential camp accredited by the American Camp Association. Today, more than 800 campers have opportunities each summer to explore the natural world around them while gaining self-confidence and learning new skills. Thanks to a recent $3.25M capital improvement project that has replaced aging camp buildings and infrastructure and increased camp capacity and season length, that number is sure to grow.
Cold-Water Survival Skills for Youth in Rural Communities
Throughout her years in Alaska, Joan was profoundly saddened and alarmed by the number of child drownings in the state, particularly in the rural areas. Beginning in 1964, Joan established a water safety program in villages where teams of Camp Fire staff worked with local communities to teach a variety of life skills, particularly water safety. Through these efforts, countless lives have been saved. The program continues today, providing more than 1,200 youth in more than 28 rural communities with both water safety and day camp activities.
A Powerful Voice for Youth
Joan served on countless task forces and committees that focused on youth issues in our state and was a strong advocate and voice for Alaska’s youth. Joan advocated and helped create within the state the child care assistance programs available for low-income families, as well as funding support for early childhood and youth development programs. She was a strong voice for youth having access to quality experiences that helped them in their development and individual growth.
For more than three decades, the name Joan Hurst was synonymous with youth development and Camp Fire in Alaska. Through her visionary leadership, the Chugach Council of Camp Fire Girls grew from a small club of volunteer leaders and girls to become Camp Fire Alaska, a statewide youth development agency for boys and girls that is a model of success not only for Alaska but the nation.
Upon her retirement in 1997, the Camp Fire organization had grown to include operations in Anchorage, Fairbanks and throughout rural Alaska, with a budget of $4 million, a staff of 150, and a participation of more than 5,000 girls and boys.
When Joan passed on October 27, 2003, Alaskans lost a first rate entrepreneur, mentor and friend to three generations of Alaskan youth and their parents. Her legacy lives on and continues to brighten the present and the future of Alaska’s youth.