Every spring, Girls Inc. of San Antonio plans a trip to the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp, providing the girls they serve with outdoor adventures they wouldn’t otherwise get. They go swimming in the Frio River and conquer challenge courses.
After camp, group leaders hear the girls excitedly sharing their experiences and newfound confidence discovered from a brief time in the Canyon.
“I’ve never seen so many stars before!”
“Camp is super fun!”
“I can’t believe I jumped in a freezing cold river. Now I can do anything!”
Those are the reactions that Mary Holdsworth and Howard Butt Sr. envisioned when they bought the 1900-acre Hill Country property in 1954. Within a year of their purchase, they built five campsites—Echo Valley, Singing Hills, Linnet’s Wings, Windsong, and a primitive campsite where Headwaters is now located—and organizations began using them at no charge. Today, the Foundation Camp still invites qualifying schools, churches, and nonprofits to use the sites for free.
“This particular program goes back nearly seven decades, and it’s the reason that the family bought the property,” said H. E. Butt Foundation president David Rogers. “The goal that Mr. and Mrs. Butt Sr. had is still our goal today.”
As with any goal, remaining focused on it requires occasional reassessments, and the COVID-19 pandemic provided a window to do just that.
In a typical year, about 200 different groups, totaling more than 20,000 people, visit the five campsites. While no fee is charged to use the facilities, qualifying groups must provide their own programming, volunteers, food, insurance coverage, medical staff, transportation, and supervising staff.
As Foundation leadership examined the demographics of camp attendees, they realized several groups who were using the facilities could afford the going rate for many Texas camps. “In the past, the fastest group that can call to get a date oftentimes wins,” said Rogers. That is in part because churches and organizations with sufficient resources tend to register earlier, confident that they’ll be able to take care of details like food, transportation, and medical. Meanwhile, organizations with tighter budgets require more conservative planning to arrange transportation or find volunteers ahead of time. While they are preparing, the dates fill up, favoring those groups who have more resources.
We realized several groups who were using the facilities could afford the going rate for many Texas camps.
Now we are aligned more with our purpose. And that is worth celebrating.
Rogers said that over the years, Foundation Camp’s goal unintentionally shifted toward “heads in beds”—giving as many campers the opportunity to experience the Canyon as possible. But the original intent was to create opportunities for people who lack them, especially the thousands of kids across Texas who have little exposure to the natural world—and the healthy development that it fosters.
Rogers said one book that influenced his thinking was Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, which details how essential direct exposure to nature is to the healthy development of children. The book reaffirmed for him that Foundation Camp needs to focus on serving campers from groups that have the most financial need.
COVID changed some things for us at camp. “We had an opportunity to reassess,” Rogers said. “So the silver lining of COVID for the Foundation Camps is that we have retooled—and now we are aligned more with our purpose. And that is worth celebrating.”
“It’s one of my favorite times of the year. All of the students we send live at or below the poverty level. They don’t really have many opportunities to go camping or go out in nature. For us, it’s an opportunity to expose the girls to something different and experience what silence is like. It’s a really beautiful experience—one of the things the girls will never forget.”
Executive Director, Empower House
“Foundation Camp is like no other. The ability to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and the noise of the city into an amazingly serene atmosphere surrounded by the beauty of nature enables the campers to experience God in a way that is otherwise nearly impossible. Providing a program amidst this unique environment, one is sure to have a spiritual experience. There are many opportunities to get quiet and enjoy God’s creation whether it’s walking the trails or fishing, swimming, or canoeing the river. The campsites are set in a valley, which creates privacy and the sense that you are the only ones in the camp. Every site has a spiritual energy that will move all who come through.”
Program Director, Rise Recovery
“I have specific memories of students healing at camp, standing before the entire camp to open up about their feelings or share personal life experiences. We have had students testify in front of the entire camp that they have been hurt and have been through trauma. …Foundation Camp has helped hundreds of [San Antonio] youth leave their pain, worries, and fears at home while they enjoy the beautiful healing powers of the Canyon.”
Lead Facilitator of XY-Zone Male Leadership Initiative, Communities in Schools San Antonio
As I watch the news, I see discord and disharmony everywhere... the problem isn’t just out there—it’s also in my own heart, in our families, and in our organizations.
A reflection from Howard Butt Jr. about how our faith and beauty anchors the Foundation's mission in relationship with God.
San Antonio architect Jonathan Card reflects on bringing the intentionality of the Canyon to a new space in the city.
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