Camp Gives Families a World of Good

by Lisa Jean Hoefner

What does an organization do at camp when a main part of its mission is to serve a constituency that is aging? What can camp leaders do to respond to the growing issue in the U.S. of who has access to nature so essential to every person's development? How do we assist people in developing healthy relationships with those who matter most in their lives?

These and similar questions have been buzzing around the meetings of the program division of the Camp and Retreat Ministry Team of the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church for several years.

The answer: expand our family camping opportunities. Today, at our six campsites throughout the two states of Idaho and Oregon we offer as many as twenty-five different sessions each year for families of all kinds and descriptions. It is the largest growing segment of our total camping program.

Specialized Events

Though family weekend retreats and traditional family camps at several sites still are a mainstay of the family camp picture, the real growth has come in more specialized events. These include: GrandCamps (for grandparents and grandchildren); Mom and Me/Dad and Me weekends (for parent or aunt/uncle or other significant adult mentor and child); Shakespeare Camps (for families with an interest in theater to take advantage of our proximity to a noted regional theater); All Invited Family Weekend (for GLBTQ [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning] families and allies); Family Work Weekends (opportunities to do volunteer service together both at camp and in surrounding communities and a great way to teach compassion); Creation Vacation Camps (a supported family vacation for low-income families — see the article in the May/June 2002 Camping Magazine); and Strength for the Journey Family Camp (for families in which one or more member is living with HIV+/AIDS).

Our newest effort to reach families is called Spiritlife Family Vacation Camp, especially designed for families who are vacationing in the popular tourist location of northeastern Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. We have devoted our whole site there (Wallowa Lake, Joseph, Oregon) to adult and family ministries, including building new facilities to accommodate this vision.

What Have We Learned

What have we learned? Lots! Here are some of our best practices, helpful hints, and considerations for your camp's family programs:

In order to reach children today, one must reach the family.
Several years ago we noticed that many children and youth (especially those with working parents and a full year of excellent childcare and enrichment program involvement already), when given the choice of going to camp on their own or staying home to be with the parent(s) for a week of vacation, will choose to stay with the parent(s). The experience and aftermath of September 11 has only exacerbated the tendency in many American families to be together or skip an opportunity altogether. Family vacation camps are helping us reach more children than our previous full summer schedule of children-only camps.

To serve families appropriately, you must think through your policies ahead of time.
Will a parent be permitted to use a canoe early in the morning on the lake without the lifeguard being present if they have strong boating skills? Are families able to leave the site during the event, or is it clearly expressed that everyone is to remain in camp? Or, is there someone you must tell when it's appropriate to the setting that you will be offsite for some of the camp time?

Must adults "go in the ‘In door'" and "out the ‘Out door'" in the dining hall and sing a silly song if they forget to do it right, or is this just not appropriate when dealing with adults instead of an all-child group? Or, is it time to completely rethink that old tradition anyway! If you can anticipate some of the questions that you might face before starting to invite families to participate, you'll be in the best position to welcome everyone and keep everyone safe and satisfied.

Be creative . . . .
And once you have a model that works, think of how to replicate it to serve others. Keep that creativity going not only in thinking through how to use your space and how to modify cabins and other facilities to be more family-friendly, but in terms of types of families you want to include.

Our mission to assist and encourage local churches to reach out with open minds, open hearts, and open doors to all their neighbors has driven our work with many special populations. Currently several county agencies on aging are asking us to work with them to modify our GrandCamp design to meet the needs of grandparents who are raising grandchildren. Since the need for respite for the grandparents and special support for the children in these situations (which are often born of grief of one kind or another) are so great, we will blend elements from our Creation Vacation model together with our GrandCamp model to serve this growing need. Each family unit will have a "Family Friend" (an adult volunteer) available to them during their time at camp — to assist in whatever ways necessary that permit the family to have the best possible shared experience through all that camp can offer them.

Solve problems together.
One early complaint of GrandCamps was only slightly humorous to all involved. Grandparents wanted a nap in the afternoon; some grandkids did not! Solution: earn a bead to wear on your name tag for napping just as you earn one for archery, boating, helping in the dining hall, and hiking. The power of a bead is amazing! But more importantly, the process built in a way to acknowledge needs to balance rest and activity in every day, the value of spending quiet time alone and together, and the joy of discovery that happens when reading a story, or better yet, telling stories, across generations.

Think through the schedule.
Think through the schedule of your typical day, and modify it for families. A later breakfast time than your usual might be appreciated. An earlier campfire time, followed by a break to put young children to bed, and then followed by late-night options for teens work really well. A "Dad's Story Time," a half hour when moms could gather for tea/coffee and conversation in the dining room while dads (or grandpas or other male role models) read the bedtime stories was a wonderful modification to the usual "quiet cabin time before lights out" in one setting. It gave all the children in attendance a great experience with nurturing male role models, especially beneficial to those who do not have that interaction on a regular basis back home. The dads loved it, too!

Build a "village."
Build a "village" or a neighborhood together. Camps are today's safe neighborhoods for children. Even more so in a family camp setting—everyone tends to look after everyone else's children at some point, enjoying new companions for play or just hanging out together. There is much that you can do to facilitate this in the most positive ways possible. Make sure there is a time for parents to think through with each other early in the camp orientation what is preferred or most appropriate when interacting with other people's children.

Does everyone want any adult to intervene if an issue of someone's safety is in question? (Usually a "yes.") When, or is it ever appropriate, to discipline a child in a situation other than an immediate safety situation? That may be more complicated, and best to talk about beforehand. Is it O.K. for children to roam as long as they are with a buddy, or only when an adult is within ear or eye range—or just what will be your best policy given your site? How can we utilize the best in our camp's group-building facilitation possibilities to the benefit of the individual families and the "village" of families as a whole?

Review your facilities.
Review your facilities and plan for families in future building and remodeling projects. Whenever possible and appropriate to the setting, we are putting bathrooms in the sleeping accommodations with an eye to future usefulness of our campsites for adults and families in years to come. Cribs and highchairs and age-level appropriate lifejackets and outdoor toys and play structures are now in our improvement budgets. Most of these things are not at traditional camps in sufficient numbers now. How about a mini-refrigerator and microwave in a few units so that bottles that are needed in the middle of the night can be prepared without having to walk over to the large camp dining hall? It can be really different to try to accommodate the needs of families in an existing children's camp facility. If you can't do it well, make sure to invite only families with school-age children for your events. Much better to narrow the field of those to be included than to say you're open to everyone, but in reality you're really only prepared for some.

The challenges can be many, but the joy of reaching more and more people through family camping may be just right for the mission of your camp. If so, start talking with others in your communities who care about families. You are sure to find some partners with whom to make a start. Camp can give families a world of good!

Lisa Jean Hoefner is a United Methodist pastor and camp leader, having served as director of camps in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, before coming to Oregon in 1998. She is currently the executive director of Camp/Retreat Ministries of the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Portland. She has been an active member in ACA since 1976.

Originally published in the 2006 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.