- Associated Press - Friday, October 28, 2016

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - On the banks of a resaca filled with IDEA Public Schools students in canoes, a small crowd of spectators seated on folding chairs under a rental tent at Camp Lula Sams on Wednesday heard the news: “Camp RIO” is officially a go.

The Brownsville Herald (https://bit.ly/2eXCUaq ) reports IDEA officials announced the school system’s purchase of the property that comprises the camp, located on the 86-acre former Girl Scout camp in north Brownsville, and discussed planned construction and renovations aimed at giving Rio Grande Valley students a quality nature and ecology education and camp experience, in part to improve classroom learning but also to instill an appreciation for nature and sense of stewardship.

By the terms of the deal, Camp RIO’s developments will comprise roughly 10 acres of the property. The remaining 76 acres are to be protected in perpetuity under a conservation easement administered by the Valley Land Fund. Lula Sams is a rare surviving example of original South Texas habitat and has never been developed.

Camp RIO will be open to IDEA students and other school groups around the Valley for prescheduled day visits, and already has been providing summer camp to children in first through fifth grades. Those summer camps - six one-week sessions - will continue.

Future plans call for a renovated swimming pool and “world-class archery range,” among other amenities, according to Sam Goessling, IDEA’s chief advancement officer, who worked closely with all parties in shepherding the deal.

Gladys Porter Zoo Director Pat Burchfield and his wife, Carol DeMoss, bought Lula Sams with two other partners in 1997 when the Girl Scouts put it up for sale, and regularly invited school groups to learn about natural history and conservation.

Burchfield said the point of buying the camp in 1997 was to save it from being subdivided and developed. Preserving the property became an issue again when he reflected on the fact that he and DeMoss were getting older. When a prospective buyer appeared in the form of IDEA, which was looking for an outdoor educational experience for its students, it seemed like a match made in heaven, Burchfield said.

“When this option surfaced, it was almost a heavenly intervention, if you will,” he said. “We’ve seen what IDEA’s done. They have all the right intentions, and they have the wherewithal to get it done. It was a perfect, perfect set of circumstances that brought it all together.”

“It’s actually fabulous, because they’re doing the vision Pat and I had always hoped would take place, but it was hard for us to get there,” DeMoss said. “They have access to the children, the grants, to everything, and they’re making it what we always wanted it to be. So we’re very happy and very proud of what they’re doing.”

During Wednesday’s news conference, partners and supporters who made the deal possible were recognized, including Burchfield and DeMoss, Jesse Barba Jr., the East Foundation, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Valley Land Fund and especially John Martin, a VLF founding board member.

Burchfield said it was Martin who, with his son, Bill, came up with the idea to get IDEA schools involved. Martin also is founder of Images for Conservation, which sponsored wildlife photo contests at Lula Sams to help raise money for an endowment for VLF stewardship of the 76-acre easement.

“A dream came true, the dream of a lifetime,” Martin said of the IDEA deal.

Kevin Good, TPWD assistant state park director, said Camp RIO only will help further the agency’s goal of getting a new generation involved in the outdoors and developing a sense of stewardship toward the state’s natural resources.

“I know every one of these kids who come out here is going to remember their experiences,” he said.

The conservation easement, meanwhile, is another link in a chain of protected easements that will help ensure the survival of wildlife for future generations, Good said.

Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA schools, said the school system’s “forward-thinking board” was instrumental in making Camp RIO a reality. He noted that 10,000 students had visited the camp during the past year and half and that - thanks to IDEA staff - the camp is pristine despite the huge numbers.

Behind the podium, Torkelson pointed to a wooden sign at the foot of a nearby resaca-side trail. The sign bore the Camp RIO logo along with eight words that seem to capture the camp’s philosophy in a nutshell: “No electronics. Walk carefully. Respect wildlife. Pick up trash.”

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Information from: The Brownsville Herald, https://www.brownsvilleherald.com


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