An Urge to Care Lit Her Fire

Print More


Pasewalk: “Her ability to make work light and fun was always appreciated,” an ex-colleague says.

It was 1973, and Jill Pasewalk was a young government caseworker in Santa Cruz, Calif. One of her “clients” – a word she detests – was despondent over a lost AFDC check. The woman was sitting on the floor of the county office in tears. Pasewalk sat on the floor with the woman, reassuring her that things would be OK.

As it turned out, they were. The woman got her AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) check to pay for rent and food. But for weeks, Pasewalk was razzed by co-workers who found her informal behavior with the client a bit odd.

That was the era of California Gov. Ronald Reagan paring welfare rolls – he’d run on a campaign pledge “to send the welfare bums back to work.” Forms to qualify for the payments grew from two to 19 pages.

“There was a sense at the county offices that it wasn’t really about working together and succeeding in making people’s lives better,” Pasewalk recalls. “It was about: ‘Follow the rules.’ It came from a negative place.”

Nonprofits, it seemed to her, were “more positive, more respectful of people.” That led Pasewalk to forsake government work for the nonprofit world.

For 30 years she worked in youth development: first for the Girls Scouts, then the YMCA, then for 20 years at Camp Fire USA. Her goal at Camp Fire, she says, was to make the program welcoming to all youth, regardless of gender, racial or cultural background, or sexual orientation.

Pasewalk, 60, retired Jan. 31 as CEO of the nearly 100-year-old organization that serves 750,000 youth in 7,000 local programs across the country. Colleagues say her legacy is one of caring and inclusion.

“What I admire about her is her ability to accept people at face value,” said Gemma Miner, who worked with Pasewalk throughout her tenure at Camp Fire. “Whatever direction you want to go, she encourages. She’s not a dictator.”

A Realization about Government Work

After graduating with a sociology major from the University of California-Santa Cruz, Pasewalk, a fifth-generation Californian, worked as a social worker for Santa Cruz County for three years, then left for several years to be a full-time mother to her two children. She returned to work as a field director and camp administrator for the Girl Scouts, and later became executive director of the Santa Cruz County YMCA.

She moved back to the San Francisco Bay area to care for an ailing uncle, and answered an ad for part-time work with Camp Fire. She gradually rose to become CEO of the Alameda Contra Costa Council, which had a $1.5 million budget and served more than 10,000 youth. She moved on in 1997 to run Camp Fire USA’s Alaska Council, overseeing a staff of 450 and a $5 million budget.

She replaced a legendary and longtime director who’d built the organization from a staff of one to 200 employees. Her challenge was to make changes without making waves.

Barbara Dubovich, her deputy in Alaska and now the CEO there, calls Pasewalk “a wonderful change agent.”

Pasewalk “instituted, along with other staff, a new way to fund development, reaching out to donors in a new way, and she brought new volunteers into the organization through that,” Dubovich says. “She’s highly skilled at bringing different perspectives to the table and forming a consensus, getting people to build on what they have in common, and creating an action plan from that. It was very empowering.”

Pasewalk led the Alaska council through a strategic planning process, and set the council’s camp on the road to a renovation that will boost the Kenai Peninsula facility from 60 to 100 campers.

She moved to the Camp Fire national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., in 2002, as field executive for the Western states, working with 40 councils. “It gave me an opportunity to compare what I’d done in Camp Fire with what else was going on, and to get to know quality of programs elsewhere,” she says. The high-level field experience led to her next job, as national senior vice president in 2004. She became president and CEO in 2006.

Throughout her career, says former colleague Miner, Pasewalk was “entirely supportive of her staff,” a trait that won her praise and promotions. “It’s just her personality, how she is, her ability to genuinely listen to people and to make sure they’re heard, and trying to create a plan that is inclusive of all the ideas. It’s leadership.”

Her greatest challenge, Pasewalk said, was trying to distinguish Camp Fire in the public mind from other youth organizations, and making Camp Fire more inclusive.

Pasewalk’s achievements at Camp Fire aren’t written in numbers or budgets, but in her determination to force the organization to grapple with thorny institutional issues inherent in the autonomy of its regional councils. “Before, we were divided as an organization,” says Miner. “We were struggling with our brand strength and identification. Her presence helped us to come together.” The discussions that Pasewalk initiated and encouraged are continuing, Miner added.

She also withstood an anti-candy sales campaign waged by health groups that challenged one of Camp Fire’s traditional moneymakers. Some councils rely heavily on the candy sale proceeds, and other products don’t produce the same returns, she says.

But Pasewalk was never one-dimensional. Colleagues mention her sense of humor right up there with her managerial skills – like the day she discovered she’d worn mismatched shoes to work and rectified the situation by spending “the day running around in a pair of bright yellow smiley face slippers another staffer lent her,” Dubovich recalls.

And the time Pasewalk “ransomed” a kiwi. “Jill put up the ransom money so it could be returned to its mother – a watermelon.”

What else would one expect from a woman whose collection of 25 stuffed toy bears, which began in the 1980s when someone gave her a polar bear, includes names and a distinct “personality” for each?

“Her ability to make work light and fun was always appreciated,” Dubovich says.

Glenn Cravez, a mediation lawyer in Anchorage who chaired the council’s board during Pasewalk’s tenure in Alaska, says “she likes humor, good books, to laugh, and she loves kids.”

Looking ahead, Pasewalk says Camp Fire USA, like all nonprofits, faces financial challenges in the current economy. “We’ve started getting letters from some of our supporting foundations talking about the hard times they faced last year and what they’ll be able to give compared to in the past,” she said in January. “Yesterday I had three such letters on my desk.”

That will be for others to deal with. In her retirement, Pasewalk has returned to her home state of California and plans to pursue a longtime interest: studying Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen Center.

She also has a new youth development project: her first grandchild, a newborn girl who arrived in California last month just about the same time as she did.