Home, the well-used proverb tells us, is where the heart is. For Dawn Maust and her family, their heart is in a KOA campground.
For the past nine years, Dawn and her husband Kevin have owned Sallisaw/Fort Smith West KOA Holiday, a 22-acre traveler‚s oasis that offers a year-round, full spectrum of amenities, and a camping experience from rustic to glam.
A peripatetic lifestyle, however, is not for everyone. But for Dawn, variety is the spice of life. Her two careers âÂ€Â” first, an emergency room nurse, and then franchise owner for the world‚s largest system of privately held campgrounds âÂ€Â” are the perfect environment for change and problem solving.
With a newly minted bachelor’s degree in nursing in hand from Michigan State University, Dawn was a pediatric nurse then an ER nurse for 23 years before becoming a travel nurse. “I like trauma quite a bit, and the thing I liked about ER is variety,” she says. “I love pediatrics âÂ€Â” that was my first skillset through many years âÂ€Â” so it was something I was always happy to take.”
During the first two years as a travel nurse, her ER rotations took her to Florida, Wyoming, Hawaii and back to Michigan. But when the possibility of a stint in Alaska was presented, albeit intriguing, the Mausts were already making plans for a career change.
Kevin, who had a degree in business and then earned a teaching degree, was unfulfilled in his career. And when teaching jobs in Michigan began to evaporate, the Mausts were at a crossroads.
“One day, I asked my husband, ’If money was no object, what would you do with the rest of your life?‚ He said, ’I would like to own a campground.‚ We‚ve always camped, both of us âÂ€Â” separate, growing up and together since we‚ve been married âÂ€Â” but that was a shock. I had no idea he had ever dreamt of owning a campground,” Dawn confesses.
So the long, deliberate, laborious, scrutinizing search began âÂ€¦ and lasted eight years. Dawn says they looked at campgrounds in Oregon and along the I-75 corridor in middle America. With four children, “our goal was to make it family friendly for us, too.”
Then their broker approached them about a campground in Sallisaw.
“People from Michigan don‚t understand what Oklahoma is, especially this side of Oklahoma,” Dawn says. “We literally both looked at each other and said, ’No, I don‚t think so, not in Oklahoma. We don‚t wanna go there.”
Fast forward to 2022, and a return trip to the Great Lakes State. “We just had my son-in-law (Dalton Edwards) go to Michigan with us âÂ€Â” he‚s from here âÂ€Â” and he said, ’This looks almost exactly like Oklahoma.‚ It‚s just very similar. Sequoyah County is hillier than where we‚re from in Michigan (along the Lake Huron coast),” Dawn says. “It‚s just very different than we expected.
“In the end, it checked all the boxes that we were lookin‚ for.”
Changes in latitudes
But, Dawn will tell you, Michigan and Oklahoma are worlds apart, not just geographically. “It‚s been quite an adjustment culture-wise. It‚s very different from Michigan. When we first moved here, and occasionally we still get it, people would say, ’You‚re not from around here, are you?‚”
But the Mausts have made the adjustment from the 45th parallel âÂ€¦ kinda.
“The summer heat, I‚m still not used to. I don‚t miss the winters in Michigan so much, but I am still, nine years later, still trying to adjust to the heat of Oklahoma,” Dawn says. “It‚s hot down here.”
But as a woman in business in Oklahoma, heat is not the biggest obstacle.
“Honestly, the biggest obstacle here is just the attitudes toward women, and I don‚t want to make that sound really bad, but it was a big difference coming from Michigan, especially as a nurse, and I was in a leadership position a lot of times,” she says. “And then to come here, just the attitude that ’you can‚t‚ or ’you shouldn‚t.‚ And I don‚t mind the ’you shouldn‚t,‚ I don‚t mind when people are being nice to each other, I‚ll hold the door open for people, too. I think that‚s appropriate.”
For Dawn, who‚s used to northern women rolling up their sleeves and “getting into the nitty gritty” of doing the dirty work, encountering the often-prevalent attitude southern men have toward the fairer sex was disarming. She cites an occasion when a girl backed her car into her adult daughter‚s car. When the girl‚s grandfather intervened, he refused to talk about the accident with Dawn‚s daughter who owned the car, insisting instead to talk to her father.
“Never in our life had we experienced something like that,” Dawn recalls. “It‚s just a very different culture âÂ€Â” not saying that everybody‚s like that, obviously.”
But it‚s a male demeanor that has also been observed when women employees attempt to provide assistance at the KOA location.
“Some people would say it‚s rude the way some women are in leadership positions, or the way they come across, that they‚re too forceful for them or whatever. I don‚t know what it would have been like if it had been just me, if I‚d have seen any difference,” Dawn says, noting that the KOA franchise is in both hers and Kevin‚s names, and that bank loans are in both their names.
What to expect in business
So such occurrences beg the question, is it harder for a woman in business than it is for a man?
“I think only in other people‚s attitudes. I don‚t think in any other respect it‚s harder. I think only in how other people view you,” Dawn decides. “I don‚t think there‚s anything that a man or a woman âÂ€Â” just because they‚re a man or a woman âÂ€Â” can or can‚t do. In business, in general, it‚s what you put your mind to. If you decide you want to do it, you get the skillset for it, you wanna do it, you‚re gonna work hard for it, you can do whatever you want. It‚s only gonna be other people‚s attitudes toward you and their response to what you wanna do, and then you just gotta fight harder. Now could it affect here, maybe. Could I have gotten a loan by myself? I would not be surprised if that could have affected it.
“Women don‚t get the credit for the knowledge they have because it‚s a softer knowledge. It‚s maybe a little more âÂ€Â” people today use the words emotional intelligence âÂ€Â” but just being able to read people, and some of the soft skills that aren‚t respected as much as a man being able to fix the truck or being mechanical, and I say that as a generality. In our business âÂ€Â” and I think most businesses, especially if it‚s any kind of customer service business âÂ€Â” I think the combination of those skills is huge. I don‚t think Kevin would have been as successful alone, and I don‚t think I would be as successful alone. It takes both. I would like to see the world recognize the skills that a woman brings to that table.”
With that in mind, Dawn believes women who embark upon a career in business should do so with a healthy dose of pragmatism.
“If you are thinking about being in business, make sure that you‚re very comfortable with unknowns. You may wake up in the morning and you have no idea what the day‚s gonna hold. There‚s some people that they wanna plan out their day, and at the end of the day, they want to have followed that plan, and there‚s no way to do that when you own a business, I don‚t care what kind it is, ‚cause things are gonna come up,” Dawn warns. “So I think you have to be super comfortable with just knowing that you can go with the flow no matter what comes on the day. Personality-wise, if you aren‚t there, you either need to figure out how to get there, or probably reconsider whether it‚s something you want to do, ‚cause I think you‚re gonna get very frustrated and angry with your life at that point, you‚re not gonna enjoy what you‚re doing.
“I think any person can do anything that they put their mind to if they put in, ahead of time, the research of what it takes to do that kind of business to begin with. And write down your goals of what you wanna get out of that, and being very realistic, having other people look at those goals, and say, ’Do you think I‚m on the right track with this goal? And am I going to be able to meet my goals by doing such and such?‚ There‚s a lot of time, before getting into it, that you really need to invest, and we, personally, we have faith, and I prayed like crazy, and I said ’If this is it, then open the door. If it‚s not, then close the door.‚ Be really honest with yourself. When there‚s a red flag, look at that red flag and ask yourself, ’Can I overcome this? Or is this saying I should go somewhere else?‚
“Life comes with all kinds of fun problems. At that point, you just dig in your heels and be creative,” Dawn says. “I think one of the biggest things is be really creative with how you solve problems. Don‚t be afraid to be creative and to reach out to other people that may have the knowledge you need. ’Do I know anybody that knows anything about this?‚ Again, dig your heels in, learn from your mistakes and go on. Don‚t give up if it‚s still one of your dreams. If it‚s not what you thought it was gonna be and you change your mind, don‚t be afraid to change your mind. So many people are afraid to change their mind because they care about what other people think about them, ’Oh, you failed or you did that or whatever.‚ Sometimes we just get into careers that it isn‚t what we thought it was gonna be. Don‚t be afraid to switch gears, don‚t be afraid also if it‚s still your dream. Go for it. Keep goin‚. Figure out how you can do it. For women, down here especially, they‚ll hit some walls, I‚m sure, if women own a business by themselves.”
Growing up at KOA
When the Mausts committed to living their dream in Sequoyah County in 2013, Dawn negotiated the business minefield with four children at home âÂ€Â” Nicole, then 14; Abby, 12; Kami, 9; and Michael, 8.
And her children have grown up at the Sallisaw park.
“They‚ve learned the industry, and doing various things in it,” Dawn says proudly. “Nicole (now Edwards), who manages the park, is probably going to stick with management, whether it‚s here or she ends up going anywhere else. Abby is in college right now studying hospitality, and she also wants to do something with KOA.” (Kami is training to be a Navy aviation rescue swimmer, and Michael is a junior at Sallisaw High School.)
“The thing that we ended up loving about the campground was, we wanted to make it family friendly, and we wanted our kids to be able to grow up in something and learn hard work and learn frustration, learn troubleshooting, learn how to talk to adults. As they got older, we realized how much of a problem that was becoming, because they‚re on phones so much now, it‚s difficult for kids to interact with other kids even, let alone adults. So here they answer the phone, they take reservations, they troubleshoot, they‚re helping tired and irritable campers âÂ€Â” not very often âÂ€Â” but they can come in frustrated because maybe they just sat on theÂ side of the road for six hours with a tire blowout. Our goal is, no matter how they walk in, they‚re gonna walk out with a smile on their face.”
Which is the polar opposite of what Dawn experienced as an ER nurse.
“It was the first week [at KOA] that I realized how much happier people are when they walk into a campground than when they walk into an ER,” she says. “I love ER, but this is dreamy.”
Recovering from her digression, Dawn points out the benefits of her children working alongside her in the business.
“It allows me to demonstrate to them and teach them the values that I want them to learn âÂ€Â” troubleshooting, serving difficult customers, integrity even though nobody‚s watching. Those kinda things I wanted them to learn, I was able to do that in this position, even though we were still working. So we‚re fortunate here. I know a lot of people don‚t have that benefit. There‚s good and bad about it.
“Just for the kids to have a place that they would learn so many things, and it was right there for them to learn. It‚s been better than we expected as far as their skillsets. Often, people say to our kids, ’You carry on such a good conversation, and you can talk to anybody.‚ It forces them to get off their phones. That‚s one of the things we wanted to provide here, a place to connect, to create memories, to enjoy outdoor activities, to have family and friend activities with each other.”
A wasted life?
In addition to her undergraduate degree, Dawn also earned a Masters degree in nursing education, which too often evokes the question that leaves Dawn incredulous.
“I‚ve had people ask me, ’Why are you wasting your degree at home?‚ I‚m like, ’Wasting my degree at home?‚ I would get a degree for my children if I did nothing else ever again. This is not a waste of my degree. It‚s creating four little kids that, hopefully, will someday make a difference in their world. It‚s just interesting the way people think that way, though,” she says.
“Some of that is because women‚s work was in the home, how little value was placed on that. But that was why men can go do what they do, because somebody‚s taking care of the whole rest of it. It would be great to see the continued move toward what women bring to the table in business, be valued, so that more women aren‚t afraid to go jump into that.
“It‚s good to see women getting in those roles of leadership in business âÂ€¦ if they want to. I loved being a stay-at-home mom when I was in that stage. Make it happen, whatever you wanna do. We gave up some things because I didn‚t work full-time during that time, but that was what we wanted and what I wanted to do.”
So the high school girl with the big hair in the 1980s âÂ€Â” “Every nine months I had to sit down and get a dumb perm” âÂ€Â” had big dreams as an adult, dreams so often associated with bygone days.
“We survived the ‚80s,” Dawn says with nostalgia, adding that her favorite music was what is now classic rock, and that her favorite television series was “Little House on the Prairie.” “I think that in the ‚80s, it was when life changed a lot. Fear kinda came into the world. People started kidnapping kids. Before that, kids could go out for the entire day and have fun. That was about when it ended, though, was when I was in that age group. Our kids never had that benefit.”
That‚s one of the reasons camping has been so important to Dawn and her family.
“Camping, to us, has always been a fun, family activity that our kids still love to this day. We did as much camping as we could. One of the biggest things for us is that kids, if they‚re not growing up on a farm or in a small business like that, they have a hard time of really getting that concept of the whole picture of being responsible for something bigger than themselves,” Dawn says.
“We have tried to find the balance of allowing us to run this park, and yet our family is the reason we‚re here, and so this is our priority. We miss the mark on that sometimes. In today‚s day and age, with school sports and that kinda stuff, it‚s really hard to connect, so trying to find the life-work balance has been a job from Day One for us.”