Alumni Spotlight - Dave Surface

Committed to our community's youth

By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist

Dave Surface has been committed to providing services for youth for nearly 38 years. A former assistant executive director and associate director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County for over 16 years, Dave took on the duties of executive director for Snohomish County’s Camp Fire USA organization in 1991. Dave’s solid leadership and dedication to kids has ensured financial stability for the organization, even with the challenges of a sagging economy. A graduate of Everett Community College, Dave tells us more about his background and the rewards of serving youth.

Where did you graduate from high school?

I graduated from Langley High School in 1966.

Did you go through a selection process to determine where you would go to college?

Well, I played basketball, so after I graduated from high school, I had a scholarship to play ball at Big Bend Community College. I spent the fall there. I didn't like the weather or eastern Washington, so after that quarter, I came back to Langley. There wasn't a decision to make as to where I was going to go to college because I lived on Whidbey and EvCC was the only access I really had.

Did you have any idea of what you wanted to do when you attended EvCC?

I thought I was going to become a CPA; that was my intention. I was good at math, so I assumed that's what I would be doing.

Did you graduate from EvCC?

Yes, but there's more to the story: I went to EvCC for a year--when the war in Vietnam was hot and heavy. My twin brother was sent to Vietnam. I'm one of 12 children and our family was poor as church mice, so I had to take a quarter off from school to get enough money to come back to school. So, I took one quarter off and was drafted while I was out of school. But, I couldn't go to Vietnam since my brother was already there (the government would not send two brothers to the war zone). Instead, I spent two years in the service, half of that time in Korea. When I came out of the service, I returned to EvCC and finished my second year of community college.

What do you remember about your time at EvCC?

By returning to EvCC, I'll tell you what happened: I changed my passion for what I wanted to do with my life. While I was at EvCC, I signed up to work at the Boys & Girls Club in Everett. So, I worked  while I was going to school. When I started working at the Boys & Girls Club, I  realized that I didn't want to be a CPA anymore—I wanted to follow the youth services path.

What was it about working with youth that initially engaged you?

It was something that I enjoyed, being from a family of twelve, I have over 80 nieces & nephews, so I was always around kids and enjoyed them. It was just kind of, “Wow, this is what I'm going to do.” I changed my major to recreation and youth services and that's what I ended up getting my degrees in. After I left EvCC, I attended Western Washington University and received my four-year degree there.

What is your lasting impression of EvCC?

It was local and friendly and something that I could afford. It was also a place that allowed me to pursue my other thoughts and dreams, where I could channel into something and go for it. I couldn't have worked full-time and gone to a four-year school. EvCC was cost effective. I still lived on Whidbey Island while I finished school at EvCC, so I commuted.

How did you end up at the Camp Fire organization?

While I was attending EvCC, I volunteered and worked for the Everett Boys & Girls Club. I went on to become the assistant executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of King County, and then associate director of the King County organization. When I worked in King County, I lived locally and commuted to Seattle. In 1991, after 24 years with the Boys & Girls Clubs, I had the opportunity to come to the Camp Fire organization as the director, so that's what I did and that's where I am today.

Please tell me about what you do as the executive director for the Snohomish County Camp Fire organization.

We have about 8,000 kids in our program in Snohomish County. The organization had been running the same way for over 20 years when I came on board. We own and operate Camp Killoqua, which is a 185-acre site by Lake Goodwin State Park. When I took over, the camp alone was costing the organization about $100,000 to keep operational and it wasn't being used all year long--it was a seasonal camp. I recognized the camp as an opportunity when I applied for this job because I am a pretty good fundraiser--I had successfully overseen several capital campaigns for the Boys & Girls Club in King County.

So, we've done two capital campaigns since then. We did one seven years after I got here and another one 10 years after that. We upgraded the facilities—the camp is now a year-round operation that has 60 other non-profit organizations using the facility every year, besides what we do. It generates about $100,000 a year worth of profit, which helps support our other program services.

Camp Fire was only funded by three sources when I got here. United Way made up 30% of its revenue, fees and dues made up about 60%, and then the candy sale made up the balance. So, we built a new funding development plan that is very broad-based, with United Way now contributing about 4%. There was once a small board of directors; we now have a 30-member governing board and a 50-member associate board.

How many people do you employ?

It varies by the time of the year because of the camp program. We have a core (permanent) staff of about 15 and then we bloom to about 75 during the summer time. We also teach environmental education for several school districts, grades five and six. We built the curriculum around what the schools are required to teach in the state of Washington. It's really a great program; it grosses over $250,000 a year. Our camp programs represent half of our total budget.

Then we teach age-specific self-reliance courses throughout the community, for kids from the time they're five years old, up through high school. They start out with “I'm Safe and Sure,” learn about safety, and then peer pressure, babysitting, nationalities, acceptance, bullying, and so on.

Was there ever the thought to get away from the candy sales?

Many Camp Fire councils across the U.S. have gotten away from it.. We have such a demand for these mints that if we quit selling them, we'd have a lot of negative feedback; we really would. People are hooked on Camp Fire mints. We have other products as well, but the mints are 50% of our sales.

What kind of challenges do you have in your position?

I'm really fortunate; I have a very large, supportive governing board of directors and associate board of directors. My biggest challenges are always personnel things. As long as we're raising enough money to balance our budget every year, everything is wonderful. And we have balanced our budget every year for 19 consecutive years. Even when this market went down, we didn't get hit by it. We made a conscious effort when I first got here to say that we're going to reduce our dependency on government funding. That's why we have our fundraisers and are able to do that. So, we're healthy. In this economic downturn, we didn't have any lay-offs, although we didn't give salary increases for a couple of years.

I'm sure you have many stories of kids who have benefited from your programs. Is there one that stands out?

Well, we have special needs camps. We had a camper, a little boy who was 9 years old. He had lost a parent and  stopped speaking afterwards. Six months after the loss, he still wasn't speaking and no one could get him to open up. We have a horseback riding program at the camp, so we put him on a horse. That was his horse for the week; he had to groom the horse and take care of it, that sort of thing. Well, he started talking quietly to the horse. And, after he started speaking to the horse, he began speaking to the counselor. By the end of the camp session, he was talking like a normal kid. [Smiling]

What has helped you stay motivated in your career?

I love what I do; I get great reward from it. When you're the executive director of an organization, it's kind of like being your own boss, so I have flexibility and input in what happens with the organization. So, I can see the vision and take it there.

What have been your keys to success?

To be honest with you, I think the biggest key is that I'm a good fundraiser.

What does it take to be a good fundraiser?

I'm not afraid of asking; I'm creative, I think of different ways of doing things than the old, traditional way. We do things that are really fun. That's why my board raises money—they wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun. And I'm very goal-oriented. I cannot stand the idea of doing an event and not having it make or meet budget. I do what's necessary to make sure that happens. And, we follow a good long-range plan and we update it every year, add to it, and support it. I think I have the right personality for it. People seem to believe me when I tell them what we're doing and why it's important.

Lastly, what words of advice would you give to current EvCC students?

I think the community college route is the only way to go. Before you get too far down the road with your academic goals, see if you can find your passion, what it is that you would do even if you weren't getting paid. Explore the different options that are out there; find out what it is that really excites you. Anybody that is able to do that and work, like I have been able to do, really never works a day in their life.