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Joan Hurst

Photo of Joan Hurst

When she was a teenager Joan Hurst loved to go to summer camp, so when she was offered the opportunity to plan a camp in California in 1957 for Camp Fire, she jumped at it. In 1963 she accepted a job as the first executive director for Camp Fire in Alaska. She had only been in Anchorage a year when the office burned down, followed two months later by the 1964 earthquake. After such physical devastation, parents were mostly devoted to restoring their houses and communities, so Hurst initiated the “Gypsy Camper,” a mobile carnival of arts and crafts and summer fun for girls from Homer to Palmer.

In Seward, Hurst and some volunteers established a day camp that provided activities for any girl who wished to come. Ninety-five girls attended, in a week of pouring rain, to engage in Camp Fire’s programs of cooking, hiking, creative arts and an overnight camping trip. The children’s parents, relieved of the responsibilities of child care, were able to devote their full energy to cleanup and reconstruction.

For Hurst, this experience was the beginning of the Council’s Rural Alaska Program. Profoundly saddened and alarmed by the number of children who were drowning in Alaska, particularly in the rural areas, she led Camp Fire to establish a water-safety program in villages. The program promoted healthy life skills and choices such as boating-safety instruction, arts and crafts, cooperative games, hikes, camp-outs, teen activities, service projects and community events. Thousands of kids have learned how to swim and countless lives have been saved because of this program. The program continues today serving more than 1,000 youth in 26 villages across Alaska in 2012.

As society’s values changed, Hurst realized there were many benefits to making the organization even more inclusive. The organization became officially coeducational in 1975 and was renamed Camp Fire Boys and Girls.

As Alaska entered the 1970s and ’80s, and more parents began working full-time outside the home, the problem of unsupervised children in our communities became a critical issue. Along with the population boom created by pipeline construction, there was a rapid growth in the numbers of “latchkey” children. Children were often left unsupervised after school hours with their house keys were hanging around their necks on strings. Hurst and others had a critical role in making the case to the Alaska State Legislature advocating for the state to assist with providing quality child care in Alaska. In 1974 they adopted the Child Care Assistance Program to assist working families with childcare expenses. Today Camp Fire operates 28 municipally licensed before- and after-school programs in Anchorage elementary schools. There are also four community center-based programs in economically challenged neighborhoods. Combined, these programs currently provide 1,400 youth with a safe place to be before and after school each day for working families.

In the early 1960s, under Hurst’s leadership, Camp Fire acquired a land-use agreement from the Department of Natural Resources for the rights to use their property along Kenai Lake to deliver a residential camp experience. She brought together a passionate group of volunteers to build the camp. Hurst designed the cabins so the windows would face the lake so it would be the first thing campers saw when they woke. Hurst loved camp and personally taught canoeing and other water skills to campers. The camp was given the name Camp Kushtaka (now Camp K), and it quickly became that special place young girls wanted to attend each and every summer. It became co-ed in 1975 and 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.

Hurst was also an advocate for women. She strongly believed that women needed opportunities to be empowered to advance in society and she actively provided professional development opportunities for young women. A Camp Fire staff member, Joanne Phillips, spent countless hours working alongside Hurst, and shares this: “Joan took her role as a leader in the community very seriously. Whether you were six or 60, she graciously pushed you to put your very best foot forward; to try new things, constantly reminding you that it was important to finish what you started; to get involved with your community; and she talked endlessly about the importance of educating yourself about all things, big and small.”

Hurst was involved in a variety of community organizations, including the League of Women Voters (who were early advocates for public funding of child care), the Alaska Women’s Political Caucus, the Human Services Coalition and the Anchorage Downtown Rotary Club.

Hurst was recognized as a 1990 YWCA Woman of Achievement – honored for her vision and passion for youth development and supporting working families by providing before- and after-school care for elementary school-age children. She also received the Luther Gulick Award from the National Camp Fire organization and board of trustees recognizing her outstanding leadership in the youth development field – this award is the most prestigious award within the national Camp Fire organization.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech


Joan Hurst was a passionate advocate for kids. For 35 years, she created and directed youth development programs within the Alaska Camp Fire Council and established before- and after-school childcare programs to help working parents. She initiated the first water-safety program to teach kids in rural Alaska how to swim, and she also developed the first non-sectarian, co-ed, nationally accredited resident camp in Alaska on Kenai Lake – Camp Kushtaka.

Hurst was raised in Madison, Wisc., and after teaching school for four years, came to Alaska in 1963 to serve as the first executive director of the local Camp Fire Council. Under her leadership, 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.

Upon her retirement in 1998, the organization had grown from serving 350 girls in Anchorage to serving 5,000 girls and boys in Anchorage and Fairbanks as well as communities throughout rural Alaska.

During her tenure, Hurst spurred the national Camp Fire USA to expand its mission to address quality childcare based on the Alaska experience. The national chief executive officer of Camp Fire, Stewart Smith, said: “Joan Hurst created the model for how to provide before- and after-school care. She was a hero throughout the Camp Fire system.”

Former Gov. Tony Knowles said: “Joan’s vision for child care has helped change the lives of thousands of kids for the better.” And former superintendent of the Anchorage School District, Carol Comeau, said: “Joan was a tenacious advocate for kids.”

Before retiring, Hurst negotiated the renewal of a 55-year lease for Camp Kushtaka and, in a forward-thinking move, she named a group of kids as the “stewards” of the camp. In 55 years they will be the adults who were given the responsibility to protect the camp when they were children. In this, as in all matters, Joan Hurst acted on her belief that adults should do right by children.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech