Camp RIO at Historic Lula Sams

Est. 2015

Fundraising Information

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Our Story

Camp RIO at Historic Lula Sams sits on approximately 85 acres of predominantly untouched wildlife preserve. The land was originally developed as a girl scout camp and was gifted to the community by the Earl C. Sams Foundation in 1953. It served many girl scouts until the 1990s.

The property is filled with various native plants and animals that in most places in the Valley have long been eradicated by urbanization. IDEA Public Schools, in coordination with the Valley Land Fund, is working to preserve this unique piece of land so that generations to come may enjoy it in its natural form.


280 Fish Hatchery Rd. 

Brownsville, Texas 78520


Our Past

Our outdoor educational oasis was originally gifted to the Girl Scouts in 1953 by The Earl C. Sams Foundation.  It operated as such until the 1990s.  The property was then sold to a group of environmentally-minded people who worked to preserve the land and operated a variety of programs here for the next 20 years as Camp Lula Sams.  

Wanting to make sure the property would stay protected long after they were gone, one of the couples, Dr. Pat Burchfield and Carol DeMoss, set out to raise funding for a conservation easement, and to find a buyer for the property.  This was when IDEA Public Schools crossed paths with the good people at Camp Lula Sams.  

IDEA Public Schools entered into contract via the Valley Land Fund to buy Camp Lula Sams in June 2016.  The Valley Land Fund agreed to take on the easement that would preserve the conservation values of the old Camp Lula Sams.  IDEA vowed to bring stewardship and vitality to the plants and animals that thrived among the old Sabal Palms, and our bright, curious scholars would be enriched by the treasured ecology found at the campsite.

This partnership was unprecedented.  The Valley Land Fund has organized dozens of easements, acting as conservator for a hundred thousand acres of protected land, but never on school land.  Both, The Valley Land Fund and IDEA Public Schools, are dedicated to developing a new generation of children who will learn about their environment, and appreciate their surroundings, and understand the importance conservation through their experiences at Camp RIO.  

Our Future

IDEA is committed to refurbishing and renovating the site to ensure it can provide state-of-the-art facilities, activities and environmental and science learning curricula for students. 

Over the next few years, IDEA will work to earn the support of the community, individuals, businesses, and organizations to fund several renovations to the site, including the development of a world-class archery range, an outdoor pavilion, refurbishing the pool, and building a fishing pond that will afford students hands-on knowledge and experience in conservation and fishing.

Thanks to the previous landowners, Dr. Pat Burchfield and Carol DeMoss, the local wildlife has flourished under their stewardship of the native plants and animals.  IDEA Public Schools has hired a biologist on staff to cultivate the land with more native plants, actively reintroduce and manage the native animals and plants, and document the project every step of the way.  

The ultimate goal of IDEA Camp RIO is to teach students how people interact, co-exist, and thrive alongside native plants and wildlife.  Fishing, canoeing, building camp fires, hiking, archery, photography, and more will help connect students and the community to the wonders of nature in the Valley.    

Our Administrative Team

Nancy Mance

Director, Camp RIO

Nancy is from a long line of Brownsville natives dating back to her great grandparents. Her mom even attended Camp Lula Sams as a Girl Scout in the 1950s! Although she was not born here, her family returned in the mid 1980s. She attended Oliveria Middle School and St. Joseph Academy. Her passion for camp began while attending Texas A&M in College Station.  She spent her summers working at a variety of youth camps and decided one day her life's work would include introducing children to the wonders of the outdoors. Her degrees in Biology and Kinesiology laid the foundation of knowledge, and 12 years in the classroom have given her the experience to provide a quality camp program.

Howard Mance

Operations Manager, Camp RIO

Howard was born in Baltimore MD to a military family. As a child he traveled all over the world including Japan, the United States, England, and Germany.  He served in the Army for 9 years, and received an honorable discharge. As a child, he learned a great deal of outdoor skills from his grandfather at their log cabin homestead in Pine Bush, NY. As an adult he served as a Colorado high angle rescue volunteer and his skills working on a variety of equipment in the military as well as his passion for the outdoors created the perfect match for his role at a camp.  

Mary Barba

Outdoor Education Program Manager, Camp RIO

Mary was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas.  She graduated with a degree in Education from The University of Texas at Brownsville and taught elementary school before moving to Camp RIO.  She has a passion for people and a passion for learning.  She and her husband love to spend time at the gym and the beach whenever they have the chance.

Conor Murray

Summer Program Manager, Camp RIO

Conor came to America from Scotland as a Summer Camp Counselor in 2011.  For the past 7 years he has been involved in Camp in the Texas Hill Country first as a cabin leader and then as a program director.  He brings a wealth of knowledge to the Camp RIO team as he helps us begin our journey to offering overnight programming. His passion for camp and love for working with children are a wonderful asset to our RGV community.  He and his wife Meghan love following soccer and keeping their dog Felix entertained.