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Finding Your Niche: Reinventing What a Summer Camp Can Be
The Schenck family purchased the thirty-four hundred acres, now called The Green River Preserve, in the early 1950s as a place to spend weekends and summers fishing, hiking, and exploring the Green River Valley. As a child, Sandy Schenck was fortunate to learn the lore of Green River, not only from his parents, but also from people who had lived in the valley for generations. Newman Levi, a lifelong resident, taught him about tracking, hunting, and valley customs. Charles and Pearl Cox, "an old school" mountain family introduced him to milking cows, churning butter, and cooking on a woodstove. Alfred Heatherly, a logger, and his wife, Lori, taught him stories of Cherokee Indians, jack-o-lanterns, and life in the valley in the early 1900s. From these memorable teachers, he learned a reverence for the land, a sense of valley history, and a joy and wonder of outdoor living. These folks were Sandy's counselors, and he was their camper.
In 1987, Sandy left a career in business to fulfill his lifelong dream of starting a summer camp on the Preserve. After touring camps from Georgia to Maine, Sandy found that the competition for summer camps was intense. If he was going to be successful, he needed a niche. Along the way, a conversation with a child psychologist planted the seed that was to become the Green River Preserve. This psychologist told Sandy about some of the special needs of very bright children.
Schools all over the country had "gifted and talented" programs to meet the needs of this population. Why not design a summer camp specifically for this population? This could be the niche that would set The Green River Preserve apart — to share the magic of this area with campers through a unique, natural-science-oriented summer camp program. Sandy determined that this would be a camp unlike any other — one that not only offers bright and motivated campers the ability to enjoy the freedom the wildlife preserve affords, but also a chance to grow as budding naturalists and individuals. Essentially, Green River reinvented what a summer camp could be.
The strategic decision to design the camp and its programs specifically for bright young naturalists allowed Green River to differentiate itself from other camps. Families with children who are "gifted and talented" recognize the efforts of Green River to provide programs that meet the needs of these children.
In a noncompetitive environment, the camp emphasizes self-respect, respect for others, and respect for all living things. For campers and staff, Green River is a "No Discount" zone — "put-ups" rather than "put-downs" are encouraged. All campers are afforded a safety net of respect and, consequently, the freedom to truly be themselves. Often, this is very difficult to do in school or "the real world."
The camp promotes the quality of fortitude and encourages campers to be bold and try new activities and build new skills. While other camps offer some of these program components, Green River is careful to consistently apply these principles throughout its entire program. These programming measures allow Green River to better meet the needs of its special population, thus, appealing to a niche market.
The emphasis at Green River is on natural science and experiential learning. The campers are very bright and eager to learn. They want and need more than just entertainment. They need a degree of intellectual stimulation to really feel fulfilled. One unique aspect of The Green River Preserve is the mentor hikes which allow campers to explore with our naturalists the forests, streams, and hidden valleys of the Preserve. Campers learn to use all of their senses to experience the outdoors as they play under waterfalls, crawl into caves, explore archeological sites, track wildlife, and taste edible plants.
Together, campers learn by doing. Our naturalists, whom we call mentors, are men and women of exceptional character who have a genuine love of teaching and the outdoors. All of our mentors are college or master's level graduates with teaching experience — among them are foresters, geologists, biologists, musicians, and professional artists. Our program-wide commitment to experiential learning earned Green River its nonprofit status, not as a summer camp, but as a "wilderness school for gifted children."
There were challenges to implementing that specifically address the needs of gifted populations. The very concept of "gifted" is often misunderstood and difficult to explain. There are so many sizes and shapes of giftedness — children can be gifted academically, linguistically, artistically, musically, scientifically, and so on. Green River strives diligently to define its target market population. It is not for everybody. If a child is a bright and eager learner, has age-appropriate social skills, and likes the idea of getting his or her feet wet exploring and learning about the outdoors, this camp may be a very good choice. To qualify for admission to Green River, campers must complete an application which includes a brief camper essay and a teacher recommendation form.
Evaluating and insuring that all aspects of Green River's programs are mission compliant is another challenge. All camps face this to some degree, but to specialize in a particular market makes it doubly important to be consistent. For example, campwide games of capture the flag are great fun, but to de-emphasize competition, the ending score of all games is "fun to fun." Even terms that imply competition are avoided. Consequently, there are no teachers, classes, or swim tests at Green River, only mentors (naturalists), activities, and a swim festival. All administrators and staff of Green River have to be vigilant to stay consistent with the camp mission: "to provide a challenging and nurturing learning experience and to inspire a profound appreciation of interconnectedness, ecological respect, and the joy of living."
Spreading the Word
Looking back over its nineteen years, Green River's biggest reason for success was the decision to specialize in a target market. The camp was able to effectively spread the word about its program through a variety of "gifted and talented" educational and advocacy groups. Once parents learned about the program and its design to meet the needs of bright young naturalists, they became enthusiastic supporters of Green River.
The camper population grew quickly and the demand was strong enough to allow us to have tuition comparable to private camps. Consequently, we were able to build outstanding facilities, to offer good staff salaries, and to fund a significant scholarship program.
Green River Preserve offers several special programs above and beyond its traditional summer camp sessions. By offering these programs, we can extend the Green River Preserve experience throughout the year and to those who may not be able to spend a full summer session here.
The hallmark of Green River is to make a difference in children's lives and to teach young people to be future leaders and better stewards of the land. Through wilderness skills, creative arts, and the exhilaration of outdoor fun and discovery, we strive to inspire young minds. "The people, the land, and the philosophy have shaped my life, and I try each and every day to spread those ideals to others." (camper, Liberty, South Carolina).
Missy Schenck is the co-owner of The Green River Preserve.
Originally published in the 2006 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.