by Becky List
Think back to the last day with your camp staff this summer. Chances
are good that there we're lots of tears, chants of "see you
next summer," and the inevitable "I can't believe it's
all over — I wish I could stay at camp all year!" I remember
my most recent "last day" quite well . . . as my staff were
getting one last picture and one last hug, in the back of my mind I was
wondering, "How long before they're all gone?" Don't
get me wrong — I love camp. And I love the kids and all of my staff.
But after two months of 90-hour weeks, I was ready for a break.
However, the problem with being a camp director is that it trains you
to be busy. While I look forward to my fall vacation all summer, when
the time comes, I find it very difficult to wind down. The realization
that I am no longer responsible for anyone but myself takes some getting
The Mid-Winter Blues
The change from the summer environment can be a hard adjustment. You
may find yourself around this time of year getting "The Mid-Winter Blues."
When summer camp is in full swing, you learn to have three conversations
at one time, are used to multi-tasking, and are constantly moving. This
is a good thing when you are at camp, but when some of the commotion
dies down, it's sometimes hard to ease into a slower-paced lifestyle.
So what does a super-functioning camp director do when he or she has
taken a vacation and is raring to go again? After the constant need to
answer the phone, check in with staff, and deal with problem campers,
the relative stillness of the office can be very unnerving. There are
many days when I find myself looking for some work after checking off
my to-do list in a frantic morning.
Of course there are all kinds of camp directors out there. Some are
seasonal and go back to teaching or other jobs in the fall. Some work
year-round at their camp facility with retreats or school groups keeping
them busy in the "off season" (for many of them, the idea of relaxing
is still a foreign concept). Since I, like many of us, work for a larger
organization, I load up my car a few days after the kids leave and head
back down to the office—that dreaded place where we are forced
to wear grown-up clothes and sit inside all day.
If camp is just one program in a larger agency, it may be hard to adjust
to life in the organizational office. As camp directors, we are the bosses,
the head honchos, the big cheeses. We hire staff to help us out, delegate
tasks that we are not as skilled in, and generally try to keep several
dozen people in line. It's quite a contrast to suddenly find yourself
in a cubicle (sometimes with no window!) on the bottom of the totem pole,
as you come back to an office full of people who have been with the organization
for decades—and proceed to ask you how your "vacation" was.
I am fortunate to work for an organization that employs multiple camp
directors. I'm still on the bottom of the totem pole, but there
are several others down there with me. And I'm grateful to have
people to bounce ideas off of, indulge in a midday game with, and who,
in general, get "it." A camp director friend of mine was
recently called down to her office for a staff retreat. One of the activities
on the menu was a personality test that gave everyone's results
back as a color. As the only camp director on the staff, it wasn't
a surprise for her to be the only orange person in the group. How many
of you are an orange in a sea of blues and reds who just don't
The Cure for the Blues
While it is easy to lose energy when the momentum of the summer slows
down, there are many ways to keep from getting the mid-season blues in
the off season. Taking the time to meet people in the camp industry,
build up your knowledge, and keep in touch with your staff will help
you in the long run and occasionally get you out of your cubicle in the
Despite the fact that camp directors are scattered across the country,
as a whole, they are a relatively friendly bunch. And since we tend to
be good at organizing people and enjoy having a good time, there are
always fun things going on. If you don't know of any other camp
directors locally, contact your American Camp Association (ACA) local
office. They'll have a list of all of the camps in your area and often
have camp dinners, annual meetings, and other events for members. Each
local office also has a Young
Professionals (YPs) representative, who can get you in touch with other
YPs. Every section is governed by a board of directors, and they can
always use a hand. Perhaps you can help with a newsletter, serve on a
subcommittee, or help plan a local camp fair. They may even be looking
for someone to serve on the board—this is how I became involved
What are you doing February 13-16? If you haven't already made
plans, it's time to book your ticket to Austin, Texas! The ACA
National Conference is headed to Texas in 2007, and it is a great place
to catch up on the latest information about the camp field, network with
other camp directors, and score some great deals on products for your
camp. And best of all, if you are a full-time student, it's free!
Or if you just can't make it to Austin this year, every region
of the country has its own spring conference. Check out the ACA Web site,
www.ACAcamps.org/conference, for conference dates and more information—it's
another great way to get involved with the organization.
In addition to becoming more involved with ACA and finding other camp
professionals nearby, you may also want to be in touch with related organizations
that serve your camp or community. Take the time now to develop a relationship
with the local dance studio or independent artists who might be able
to teach their craft at your camp. Or look into nearby outfitters that
might be able to rent you sports equipment or guide a trip that would
help attract older campers. These relationships will provide you with
new resources for camp and might also steer you in the direction of folks
with similar careers who understand your frustrations.
The fall and winter is a great time to catch up on your reading. The
ACA Bookstore, www.ACAcamps.org; click on ACA Bookstore, has a number
written specifically for camp and others with a broader focus—that
could help you improve the way you run your camp. The Knowledge Center
of the ACA Web site is a goldmine of information—all included with
your ACA membership. This slower time of year is also conducive to cleaning
out those old files, putting together new resources, and revising the staff
In the mid-winter, it's a great idea to keep your summer staff and
campers in mind—especially if you want them to return the next summer.
Invite former campers and staff to a reunion in the middle of the winter
and hold the program up at camp so that everyone can see the property in
an entirely different season. If you will be attending out-of-state camp
fairs, invite staff from those schools out to lunch or ask them to help
you out at the booth. Send out a monthly newsletter or birthday cards just
to let your staff know that you are thinking about them. Plan a family
work weekend in the spring to get your camp ready for the summer and at
the same time give your campers and parents a sense of ownership.
In the midst of keeping your work life busy, don't forget to take
some time to yourself. In her article "Balancing the Personal and
the Professional" (Camping Magazine, September/October 2006), Gretchen
Vaughn writes about the need for camp staff to develop their personal
lives. This time of year is great for taking a ceramics class, learning
how to play an instrument, or participating on a sports team. It's
also important to remember to take plenty of time for yourself, because
this is when you are going to get it. It may be difficult to relearn
the art of relaxing, but it can be done.
A year in the life of a summer camp director has lots of ups and downs.
We go from two months of crazy, action-packed madness to a season of
re-teaching ourselves to sit in front of a computer and go home at five
o'clock every night. Take advantage of the mid-winter to connect, relax,
and renew. Before you know it, it'll be time to hit the road to recruit
campers, spend hours conducting staff interviews, and begin to answer
all of the parent phone calls you are sure to get in the next few months.
While there are always tasks to be completed and new ideas to be born,
the fall and winter are great times to develop your career outside of
your camp and to get involved with other camp professionals in and out
of your community.
|G.Vaughn (2006). "Balancing the Personal
and the Professional," Camping Magazine, November/December,
Becky List has worked at camp for six summers—formerly as the
camp director at Willow Springs, with the Girl Scouts—Arizona Cactus-Pine
Council. She is on the ACA Southwest Board of Directors as well as
the steering committee for the CampWest Conference. She's planning
to avoid the mid-winter blues by teaching outdoor education programs and
taking classes in preparation for nursing school.
Originally published in the 2007 January/February
issue of Camping Magazine.