Camp Mahachee spans decades, provides oasis for Girl Scouts

campTimes have changed since the first Girl Scout troop in Florida was created in 1923. As the number of troops grew, the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida Inc. was created to hold the Girl Scout movement together. The council eventually designated Camp Mahachee as a destination for girls to learn from nature and how to preserve it. After 65 years, Camp Mahachee is still doing what it set out to- provide a safe space for girls to learn and grow.

“The facility exists only to serve girls,” said Pauline Powell Russell, chief mission to market officer with more than 30 years of experience in the council. “It’s a place to go with their groups, learn new things and try new experiences under the guidance of trained adults.”

After raising $3,337 through the sale of Girl Scout cookies, the site for Camp Mahachee was purchased from the Arthur Curtis James estate in 1945. Mahachee was dedicated for the use of the Girls Scouts on Nov. 7, 1948.

This 11½ acres of hammock land at 9950 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables, has the additional advantage of being adjacent to Matheson Hammock, the Miami-Dade County park. The winning suggestion in the contest to name the camp, “Mahachee,” is a Seminole Indian word meaning “growing” or “progressing.”

It’s an oasis from the 21st century,” said Suzanne Levitt, Girl Scouts service director in Coconut Grove. “It is exactly like it was when the girls 65 years ago started using it.”

The lush flora and fauna in the camp spurred an application to the Girl Scout National Board for certification as a Lou Henry Hoover Memorial Sanctuary. The wife of the 31st U.S. president was once the national president of the Girl Scouts and particularly interested in the outdoors program.

At her death in 1944, the Girl Scout National Board decided the most appropriate memorial to her would be conservation projects. Mahachee was dedicated on June 3, 1945, as the first Lou Henry Hoover Memorial Sanctuary.

mahachee “The girls really enjoy going back to nature with the different trees, peacocks and the butterfly garden,” Levitt said. “There is a special feeling of being outdoors that you don’t find anywhere else in Dade County. It’s a special, tranquil forest unlike the beach or the Everglades.”

During its many years of operation, Camp Mahachee has been used as a troop camp, a day camp and a center of many community activities for local and visiting troops, service units and outside groups like the United Way, hospital groups and other youth groups.

“The idea was you need to learn to survive in the outdoors,” Powell Russell said. “We teach the girls eight basic skills, like cooking outdoors, how to find their way, and we still do that but in a modern, more pre-packaged way, than the original firsthand experience.

“Time changes but our values are still the same, and there’s still an environmental concern.”

Doris Emmerson, a former Girl Scout and troop leader, grew up with the organization since her mother, Lillian B. Justinson helped bring the Girl Scouts to Florida. Along with the eight skills, Emmerson stresses a value she feels the organization has always taught young girls.

“Independence,” Emmerson said. “When I was a troop leader, I really enjoyed taking the girls and helping them figure out the steps involved in getting a goal and working toward it.”

For the new girls, Camp Mahachee provides a chance to step back in time and enjoy nature as it once was. The landscape outside the camp may have changed, but the spirit of the girls has remained.

“Girls don’t change,” Powell Russell said. “Girls are adventurous, risk-takers. The camp provides an area that is so different, not like your city neighborhoods. It has woodsy trees, raccoons, peacocks strutting around, and that takes girls away to a different environment.”

To learn more about the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida Inc. or to reserve Camp Mahachee for any troop and leader meetings, training workshops or program activities, call 305.253.4841.

This article originally appeared in The Miami Herald and Gables Home Page on April 29, 2013.