“This place was an old Boy Scout camp,” Boyd explained as he spoke of the camp on the south fork of the Spring River, in the Ozark Mountains. “A developer purchased the property from the Boy Scouts of America with hopes of building vacation homes there, but the soil was so rocky it couldn’t pass the necessary percolation testing for septic tank installation.”
So, the old camp sat there, unused for a few years until it became a dumping ground. People had begun to use the site to dump old refrigerators and other kinds of trash. The roofs of the sixteen old stone cabins had also collapsed by the time Boyd Billingsley and his group of friends came back to visit the old forty-acre camp, now called Old Kia Kima. When they saw their beloved camp and its one and one quarter mile of river frontage in such neglect, it broke their hearts. So, they devised a plan to reclaim it.
“I don’t know what it is about this place. The people involved in its reclamation have become very successful over the years,” Boyd says.
Their plan was to purchase their treasured memory; the spot that had changed their lives as children. But, that wasn’t their whole plan. They also determined to restore the camp, allow groups focused on children to use it at no cost and then to establish an endowment fund to keep it running well past the end of their time.
“It cost us about eight thousand dollars per cabin to complete the restoration,” Boyd said with tears in his eyes. “We went to the old Scouts and their troop masters who had loved it to ask for help in obtaining funds. We didn’t have any trouble raising the money to complete the restoration because neither their memories, nor their love for the place had waned over the years.”
The size of groups using the camp today are generally about sixty-four people. These contemporary campers simply pay a deposit of one-hundred-fifty dollars and that’s it. The historic camp is available for use by youth service organizations at no charge. If they leave the camp in the shape in which they found it they get the deposit back. Most groups simply donate the deposit so it can be added to the mushrooming endowment fund as a way of giving back. Giving back is the continuing theme of the camp.
“I invited a friend to come and be a ranger at the camp with me for a few days. I told him all we’d need to do is sit on the side of the river and enjoy the scenery,” Boyd said as his voice cracked with emotion. “We had an orphanage using the camp during that week and we were so affected by the ‘rag-tag’ group of kids, we wanted to be more involved with them during their stay.”
Boyd and his friend got more engaged by helping a trio of sisters get into a canoe so they could experience the river first-hand. The girls were having a great time right up until they hit a rapids section of the river. As they were passing through the rough water their canoe overturned and the girls were bobbing in the water with their safety vests floating them along. The two rangers jumped into the water and pulled the girls to safety while making sure the three sisters were well.
“One of the girls cried and cried! We couldn’t figure out what the issue was until we looked down and saw that she had lost one of her sandals. We told her it would be alright, but she sobbed, ‘these are the only shoes I have!’” Boyd continued.
After diving in the river to find the missing shoe, the two men jumped into their car and drove to the nearby town to purchase the fraught girl a new pair of shoes. They also purchased t-shirts for the entire group of orphan campers. Of course, they couldn’t leave the store without stocking up on all kinds of healthy food and treats for the kids to enjoy during their stay at Old Kia Kima.
“My buddy told me this was the most fulfilling thing he had ever done in his life,” Boyd said.
The founders of Old Kia Kima understand what it’s like to have a rocky start in life and this camp was a catalyst that changed the trajectory of many lives years ago. So, they’ve dedicated themselves and their camp to removing as many rocks as possible in the lives of those who have followed them. They’ve been at it for twenty-five years now and they’re gaining momentum as evidenced by the balance in their endowment fund.
“I think we’re almost there,” Boyd said. “It won’t be long until we have enough in the fund to keep our camp moving forward when we’re not able to be Old Kia Kima’s Steward-Rangers anymore.”
Lynn Butterfield lives in Erda and is a managing broker for a real estate company.